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Today, many conversations about cybersecurity focus primarily on information technology (IT) systems rather than operational technology (OT) environments. OT environments that control, monitor and actuate processes, equipment and operational environments are often overlooked, but they are just as important to security.
The number of cyberattacks on critical infrastructures, globally, are cause for concern. For example, in 2022, Costa Rica was the first country to declare a state of emergency after a cyberattack on the Ministry of Finance and Social Security Fund.1 The UK is not immune to these threats, with cyber threats to the UK’s critical national infrastructure (CNI) highlighted as a concern in the National Cyber Strategy 2022.2
Given the potentially exploitable nature of OT systems, it is imperative that private and public bodies look ahead and consider that they’re deploying the right strategies to best protect their systems. A new avenue for disruption, that is the least protected and newly exploitable, is OT. This threat landscape will continue to evolve as more and more OT systems converge in an increasingly connected Internet of Things (IoT) environment.3
Digitalisation enabling attacks
Digitalisation is playing a significant role in the built environment. Building systems are becoming increasingly digitalised, with power management, fire protection, access control, and visitor tracking enabling interconnectedness via IoT.
Whilst these new technologies have an array of benefits, they are susceptible to cyberattacks if security leaders do not take necessary precautions to protect OT systems from bad actors. Smart building technologies often fall short of OT environment cybersecurity best practices, creating weak spots that can open a back door to attackers. The historic mindset of protecting building management and other control systems by air-gapping them from the internet is no longer effective.
Attacks on critical infrastructure like data centres or transportation hubs have the potential to cause significant issues if vital systems are infiltrated and essential services disrupted. Malicious actors can gain access to sensitive information such as patient records or communication systems in airports. With increasing cyber threats, tougher regulations and complex control systems, facilities need a simple, centralised way to administer enterprise-wide cybersecurity that encompasses both OT and IT systems.
Cybersecure OT technologies
Today, there remains a widespread lack of understanding of how to securely digitalise and employ new technologies. As organisations look towards a more digitised future, OT and IT environments continue to
merge. This movement towards a more connected enterprise, coincides with an increase in cyberattacks whereby the UK, alone, experienced a 77 percent increase in 2022, compared to 2021.4 As such, it is imperative that cybersecurity becomes foundational to the design of digitalised OT systems, given consequences of a cyberattack on an OT system can be much graver than a breach of personal information.
Luckily, the development of new technology within the OT ecosystem will start with considerations of how to make it secure; it will no longer be retrofitted as an afterthought. As digital transformation continues, engineers and product development teams will increasingly take a ‘security and privacy by design’ approach.
AI will become the lynchpin to improve OT cyber defenses
The agility and self-learning capacity of artificial intelligence, including both machine and deep learning, will increasingly make next-generation technologies indispensable to cybersecurity. Whether we are using AI to detect emerging threats via deep learning or AI-based deception that provides the ability to lead attackers away from critical assets.
As threat actors continue to learn how to exploit new vulnerabilities in OT systems, the need for AI-enabled defenses that can quickly identify exposure and prevent or mitigate breaches will be paramount to protecting our most critical assets.
A cybersecure future
As organisations are looking towards an increasingly connected OT environment, there are many vulnerabilities that should be taken into consideration. The benefits of smart building technologies also far outweigh the negatives. Embracing these technologies and protecting organisations from cyber threats is possible and companies can, in fact, do both.