Risk Management

IT/OT Convergence Challenges, Part 1: Managing Vulnerabilities in your Industrial Automation and Control Systems

Juan Piacquadio
Tim Hall
May 17, 2023

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on vulnerability remediation and patch management challenges related to industrial automation and control systems.

With the advent of Industry 4.0 and the merging of information technology and operational technology systems, industrial automation and control systems (IACS) that were once secure and isolated are now exposed to new risks. Operational technology (OT) devices are critical components of industrial control systems, which monitor and control physical processes in industrial environments.

However, the process of vulnerability remediation and patch management that is well-established for modern IT systems poses a different set of challenges for OT systems. Therefore, there is a need for tailored patch management and vulnerability management processes that cater to the specific requirements of OT systems. Despite these challenges, it is imperative to directly address and mitigate cybersecurity risks to these cyber-physical systems by means of patching and vulnerability remediation. 

Nevertheless, a poorly implemented patch management process or ad hoc patching could have significant adverse effects on IACS. A well-developed patch management process should take into account the challenges and tailor its approach to an organization's risk tolerance, regulatory requirements, and other operational or business needs.

Asset Identification and Vulnerability Detection

IT and OT systems have traditionally been separate entities within organizations. However, with the convergence of these systems, there is a need to identify assets across both domains to effectively manage vulnerabilities and ensure that security measures are in place.

In the case of IT systems, asset identification and vulnerability detection are relatively straightforward, because there are established best practices and tools that can be used for this purpose. However, for OT systems, the process can be more challenging due to the variety of legacy systems and proprietary protocols used in these systems.

To overcome these challenges, organizations need to establish a comprehensive asset identification and vulnerability detection program that considers the specific requirements of both IT and OT environments.

Vulnerability scanners, which are commonly used in IT networks, are likely to cause disruptions making vulnerability detection challenging. These disruptions may be caused due to an increase in network traffic affecting system-to-system communication performance or affecting the OT artifacts by triggering vulnerabilities. The scans can also result in false-negatives or missed vulnerabilities due to protocol compatibility issues.

To address this need, there are a number of passive asset identification and threat detection platforms designed to run in IACS environments without causing disruption to regular operations. These tools can augment human efforts to identify and document assets, create network diagrams and data flow charts, and identify insecure traffic or vulnerabilities. 

This effort should also include continuous monitoring and reporting to ensure that vulnerabilities are addressed in a timely and effective manner. Ultimately, the success of these programs depends on the ability of organizations to stay current with the latest trends and technologies in the rapidly evolving fields of IT and OT security.

Insecure Design and Technical Limitations

OT and ICS devices are often designed with a focus on reliability, availability, and safety, rather than security. As a result, many OT devices have insecure design and cybersecurity limitations, which can make them vulnerable to cyberattacks. One of the primary issues with OT device design is the use of proprietary operating systems and communication protocols that have limited security features. These systems are often closed and do not support standard security features such as encryption, access controls, or auditing. As a result, OT devices can be easily compromised by attackers who can exploit their inherent vulnerabilities and gain unauthorized access to the systems.

Moreover, many OT devices lack built-in security features and are difficult to patch or update. This can lead to cybersecurity limitations, such as the inability to apply security patches, which can leave the devices open to exploitation. Additionally, many OT devices have long lifecycles and can remain in operation for decades, making them more susceptible to attacks as security vulnerabilities become more widely known.

Another cybersecurity limitation is the lack of visibility and monitoring capabilities in OT environments. These environments often rely on specialized protocols and equipment that are not compatible with traditional IT security tools. As a result, it can be challenging to detect and respond to cyber threats in OT environments.

To address these issues, organizations need to adopt a holistic approach to OT device security that takes into account both the design and the cybersecurity limitations of these devices. This approach should include regular risk assessments, security audits, and penetration testing to identify vulnerabilities and improve security posture. Organizations should also prioritize the implementation of security controls, such as network segmentation, access controls, and encryption, to reduce the attack surface and protect critical assets.

Risk Management
Juan Piacquadio
CIO & VP, Information Technology at Phlow Corporation.

Juan Piacquadio is the CIO & VP, Information Technology at Phlow Corporation.

Tim Hall
Director of Information Security at Phlow Corporation.

Tim Hall is the Director of Information Security at Phlow Corporation.

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