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The Role of Cybersecurity Assessments in Building a Resilient OT Environment

As the demand for operational technology (OT) security services rises, cybersecurity managers and executive-level CISOs are facing the challenge of securing their organization’s OT assets and industrial environments. While their expertise may primarily and traditionally lie in overseeing IT security, the complexities of the OT landscape present new and quickly evolving operational risks and vulnerabilities.  

Constructing an effective OT security program entails comprehending the OT environment, making astute resourcing decisions, and implementing cyber defenses. Selecting a suitable cybersecurity assessment Is a crucial step toward both understanding the environment and making investments.  

In this blog post, we will explore the composition of OT landscapes, analyze the different types of tests and assessments available, and provide guidance to help industry leaders make informed decisions to enhance the security of their organizations. 

Understanding Your OT Landscape  

Securing OT environments is increasingly becoming the responsibility of cybersecurity managers, as opposed to plant managers or operations-focused executives, as was the case historically. As cybersecurity managers inherit the crucial task of effectively allocating resources in this unfamiliar domain, it becomes imperative to comprehend the unique characteristics of the OT landscape. 

OT systems, which oversee real-time control and management of operational processes, have distinct priorities that differ from traditional IT systems. Safety, availability, and asset visibility are of utmost importance in OT environments, where continuous functioning is vital for smooth operations.   Additionally, the purpose-built control systems automating production processes oftentimes cannot be modified or upgraded without significant effort or financial investments, making vulnerability management more challenging within the environment.  

As cybersecurity managers navigate this paradigm shift, building a robust OT security program necessitates strategic resource allocation. Optimal resource allocation ensures that funds are directed toward activities that efficiently mitigate the prioritized risks of the organization. By understanding the intricacies of the OT landscape and strategically directing resources, cybersecurity managers can safeguard their OT environments and ensure the resilience of critical operations. 

Understanding Security Maturity is Essential to a Strong OT Security Program 

Building a robust OT security program requires a baseline understanding of the current state. Cybersecurity managers must fully understand the security maturity of their OT environment. Maturity awareness involves evaluating the organization’s security posture, risk level, and the effectiveness of existing security controls. Additionally, fostering a security culture that encourages collaboration and regular communication between IT and OT personnel is vital. 

By comprehending the security maturity of the organization, cybersecurity managers gain valuable insights into the strengths and weaknesses of their security practices, enabling them to identify areas that require improvement, allocate resources effectively, and develop a roadmap for enhancing the overall security posture of the OT environment. 

Incorporating the security maturity of the OT environment into the security program ensures alignment with the organization’s specific needs and objectives, allowing cybersecurity managers to take proactive measures, enhance collaboration, and cultivate a strong security culture throughout the organization. 

Types of Assessments for OT Environments 

Accurately understanding the security posture of an OT environment can be challenging, even for organizations with advanced security capabilities. While some may choose to conduct assessments internally, there is significant value in seeking an unbiased external perspective. 

Cybersecurity assessments, including vulnerability assessments, penetration tests, and red teaming, play a crucial role in providing unbiased insights into the security posture of OT environments. These assessments offer fresh perspectives and objective evaluations that may not be realized through internal evaluations alone. 

By leveraging the expertise of external cybersecurity professionals to conduct unbiased assessments, organizations gain valuable insights into vulnerabilities and weaknesses, enabling them to make informed decisions and prioritize efforts to enhance their OT security. Given the unique nature of OT environments and the serious consequences of missteps, it is essential that any external provider be well-versed in OT security and control systems. Whether assessments are conducted internally or with external support, the goal remains the same: ensuring the robustness and resilience of OT security measures. 

Organizations that embrace these cybersecurity assessments can fortify their defenses, mitigate risks, and establish a solid foundation for their OT operations. It enables a more comprehensive understanding of the security posture and ensures the protection of critical infrastructure. These assessments lay the foundation for a comprehensive approach to OT security, providing organizations with the confidence to act and navigate the evolving threat landscape. 

  1. Vulnerability Assessments: A vulnerability assessment is a security assessment in its most basic form. It provides a comprehensive overview and valuable insight into the OT environment’s security posture by identifying weaknesses in the design and implementation of security controls. It is particularly useful during the initial stages of an OT program or when the security maturity level is unknown, providing decision makers with valuable information to make a business case for investment in OT security and direct resources effectively to reduce risk. The duration of vulnerability assessments can range from 1-2 weeks depending on the size and complexity of the OT environment, and they are the least expensive of the three assessments mentioned here. 
  1. Penetration Tests: Penetration tests go beyond vulnerability assessments by simulating real-world attacks to evaluate the effectiveness of security controls. These tests are especially valuable for more mature OT environments where previously identified vulnerabilities have been addressed. They provide a focused and in-depth evaluation and can help measure the performance of outsourced security vendors or evaluate the effectiveness of a strategic plan, which validates investments in defensive cybersecurity and identifies vulnerabilities that real-world attackers could exploit. “Pen tests” often demonstrate an attacker’s ability to move laterally through an organization’s networks, bypass defenses, and ultimately gain unauthorized access to critical systems. An accompanying report details attack paths that can result in downtime or the disclosure of sensitive company data. Penetration tests can range from 1-2 weeks depending on the defined scope and are generally more expensive than a vulnerability assessment. 
  1. Red Teaming: Red Teaming is an advanced form of assessment that simulates real-world attack scenarios to test an organization’s overall security posture, including both its IT and OT environments. Red team assessments provide organizations with valuable insights to strengthen their defenses, improve incident response, and enhance overall security readiness. Red teaming is particularly beneficial for mature OT environments, complementing vulnerability assessments and penetration tests to uncover potential blind spots and enhance the organization’s security posture. Red team engagements have similar goals to a penetration test, but the testing methodology used can vary. A red team will often emulate the tactics, techniques, and procedures of advanced persistent threats (APTs), and will intentionally attempt to bypass alerting systems (e.g., SIEM, EDR, SOC) and personnel, who are not aware the assessment is taking place. Unlike penetration tests, they are usually granted wide operational scope to perform reconnaissance, probe for weaknesses, and pursue novel attack paths. This advanced testing identifies weaknesses in both security controls and processes. Red team engagements often span multiple weeks and cost more than penetration tests. 

Help Choosing the Right Assessment 

Selecting the appropriate assessment for an organization’s OT environment requires careful consideration of various factors. These factors include organizational security maturity level, budget constraints, and how they relate to the organization’s needs and strategic objectives.  

Cybersecurity managers considering an OT assessment must work to understand their organization’s unique characteristics. Here are some key questions to ask to help make that determination: 

  • What is the current security maturity of my OT environment and what information do I need to inform future investments and focus areas? 
  • What is an acceptable security posture for the production plant(s) for my organization, and what’s an acceptable risk level in my OT environments? 
  • How do we test the effectiveness of the security controls after implementing them? 
  • Does our OT security budget include resources for us to engage third parties to help us evaluate our progress? 

As cyber adversaries seek to exploit vulnerabilities in industrial control systems, answering these questions becomes vital for any cybersecurity decision maker with an OT footprint.  

Partnering with an industry expert equipped to navigate these inherently complex issues is the best way for CISOs and cybersecurity managers to build robust and effective OT security programs. RMC Global, a trusted provider of OT cybersecurity services, is uniquely positioned to assist organizations in creating a safer and more secure future. We have helped organizations in the pharmaceutical, consumer health, and medical device manufacturing industries identify cyber vulnerabilities and bolster their cyber defense. With our expertise in Risk Management, Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP), and Industrial Cybersecurity solutions, RMC is well positioned to address current risks while proactively anticipating future challenges. Our proven approach enhances awareness, provides critical insights, and enables swift decision-making to foster greater mission resiliency. 

Partner with RMC to assure the resiliency of your critical systems and safeguard the future of your organization. Together, we will navigate the evolving threat landscape, enhance your security posture, and create a robust foundation for a more secure tomorrow. 

Remember: when it comes to OT security, it’s vital to ask the right questions to inform your decision-making. Assessing security maturity, understanding the differences between assessments, and aligning them with your organization’s objectives will help you build a resilient OT security program. 

Be sure to follow RMC Global on LinkedIn, and bookmark our News & Perspectives website to stay apprised of industry insights and topical advice on establishing cyber resiliency in OT environments. 

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