How to Identify & Mitigate Plant Floor Cybersecurity Risks

Manufacturers are implementing more technology to provide efficiency, consistency and profitability. However, as the number of devices on the network continually increases, so do the implications of threat of a cyberattack.

Industrial control systems (ICS) and operations technology (OT) are inherently vulnerable to cyberthreats like hackers or ransomware that can target crucial industrial processes. The effects go far beyond data breaches and have the power to upend entire industries, jeopardize security and even put lives in danger.

It follows, then, that identifying and understanding security risks within your operational environment is key to minimizing the vulnerability of your control systems and plant network. This article details best practices for managing cybersecurity risks both on the floor and in the cloud.

Identifying Risks from Every Angle

When identifying risks and factors to consider for OT/ICS environments, the following are often noted as being most critical:

  1. Operational downtime and productivity loss: Any successful cyberattack on OT/ICS technologies could cause system downtime and significantly reduce productivity. Delivery of goods and services to customers may be delayed because of stalled production lines. As a result, financial impacts can be significant, with losses in market reputation and investor confidence in addition to revenue losses.
  2. Compromised safety systems: Extremely serious accidents can result from a breach that jeopardizes OT/ICS safety systems. For instance, a cyberattack on the control systems of a power plant could cause power outages that would impact not only businesses but also homes, hospitals and other vital services that depend on electricity.
  3. Physical harm and safety risks: Accidents and fatalities can result from a successful attack on transportation infrastructure, such as rail networks or traffic control systems. Patient safety in the healthcare industry could be put at risk by malfunctions of medical equipment controlled by OT/ICS systems.
  4. Environmental impact: Pipeline or chemical plant control system breaches can cause spills, leaks and other environmental catastrophes with long-term ecological and financial repercussions.

As this list shows, OT/ICS cybersecurity risks are not limited to the digital sphere. That’s why all-encompassing cybersecurity measures are increasingly necessary to reduce these risks as industries place a greater reliance on connected systems. Businesses need to understand that cybersecurity is a key component of their overall risk management strategy. It’s not just an IT issue.

Fundamentals of OT/ICS Risk 

Following industry best practices is essential if you want to begin a journey toward proficient OT/ICS risk management (See reference links list at the end of this article for further reading on key best practices). But first, it’s important to understand fundamental terminology terms in the realm of OT/ICS cybersecurity, such as:

  • Asset – any information, apparatus, or component of the environment. PLCs, sensors, firmware, network switches, and other interconnected parts are examples of assets for OT systems. 
  • Vulnerability – refers to a flaw that a threat source could exploit in an information system, security protocols, internal controls, or implementation. 
  • Threat – includes any situation or occurrence that has the potential to have a negative impact on the operations, assets, or personnel of an organization. 

Focused Approach to OT/ICS Risk Assessment

An OT/ICS risk assessment should be overseen by a third party to ensure impartiality and draw upon the experience of industry experts. The outcomes of such assessments can vary, but they usually include:

  • Asset inventory and classification: This covers connections and communication protocols in addition to hardware and software. Prioritizing risk mitigation efforts is made easier by classifying assets according to their importance, functionality and potential impact if compromised.
  • Data flow mapping: The paths that information travels through in an OT/ICS environment are revealed by detailed data flow mapping. Finding potential vulnerabilities and entry points for cyberattacks is made easier by identifying the ingress and egress points of data.
  • Network topology identification: This involves identifying device placements, connections, communication paths and connections to external networks. Understanding potential attack vectors is facilitated by awareness of network segments, demilitarized zones (DMZs) and external connections.
  • Vulnerability assessment: This analysis identifies weak points, out-of-date software and unpatched systems. It offers perceptions into potential weak points that threats could exploit.
  • Stakeholder engagement: Diverse expertise should be gathered through collaboration between various departments, including management, IT, security and OT/ICS operations. People with extensive system and process knowledge provide perspectives that enhance the risk assessment process.

By executing these initial steps, you lay a sturdy foundation for effective OT/ICS risk management. This process should be dynamic as it requires periodic re-evaluation to stay aligned with evolving threats and changes in the OT/ICS environment.

How to Respond to OT Risks

Following an OT risk assessment, it’s imperative to apply the findings to mitigate the identified risks. Maintaining the assessment as a reference point and updating it regularly ensures that risk-based decisions are consistently made and risk factors are accurately accounted for. Ongoing activities here could include:

  • Systematic recordkeeping and documentation, including detailed records of identified risks, risk magnitudes and suggested mitigating actions.
  • Creating security plans for operational and information systems environments, including specific security measures, IT hardware, software and service providers.
  • Implementation and upkeep of security solutions, including regular authorizations and strategies for ongoing monitoring.
  • Consistent risk assessment to evaluate the likelihood and potential impact of various cybersecurity risks, allowing for well-informed prioritization.
  • The development of specialized threat models that address the difficulties faced by OT/ICS environments and describe potential threats and attack methods that are particular to industrial systems.
  • Creation of tools and procedures for ongoing monitoring to spot changes, anomalies and security incidents while remaining vigilant in the face of changing threat landscapes.
  • Enlisting an impartial third party, such as cybersecurity companies or industry experts, to supervise the risk assessment can improve objectivity.

E Tech Group: Comprehensive OT/ICS Risk Strategy & Prevention

Identifying OT/ICS risks necessitates a thorough and multifaceted approach that includes in-depth assessment, mapping, analysis, and collaboration. Organizations can lay the groundwork for effective risk management strategies that safeguard crucial industrial processes and lessen the potential effects of cybersecurity breaches by identifying vulnerabilities, comprehending potential threats, and evaluating their potential impact. 

One of E Tech Group’s distinct capabilities as a control system integrator is providing comprehensive IT/OT Risk Assessments and Industrial IT Services. The importance of IT/OT Risk Assessments in automation implementation cannot be understated in today’s tech-heavy operational environment.

Through understanding weak points, blind spots and equipment status within a facility’s existing automated systems, we ensure the system upgrade, retrofit or new build minimizes risks now and in the future. Robust security features and ongoing support from E Tech Group IT professionals puts you in the best position to grow safely and sustainably.

You can find the original version of this article, written by Matt Smith, E Tech Group IT/ICS Network Architect, at Automation World.