Operational Technology (OT) systems have decades of planning and experience to combat threats like natural disasters – forces of nature that can overwhelm the under-prepared, but which can be countered in advance using well thought out contingency plans. Converging IT with OT brings great efficiencies, but it also sets up a collision between the OT world and the ever-changing threats that are commonplace in the world of Information Technology.
A Changing Threat Landscape
The security, reliability, and integrity of the OT systems face a very different kind of threat now – not necessarily more devastating than, say, a flood along the Mississippi, or a hurricane along the coast – but more intelligent and malicious. Bad actors connected over IT infrastructure can start with moves like disabling your backup systems – something a natural disaster wouldn’t set out to do. Bad actors are not more powerful than Mother Nature, but they certainly are more cunning, and constantly create new attack techniques to get around all carefully planned defenses. This is why the traditional strategies have to change; the threat model is different, and the definition of what makes a system “reliable” has changed.
In the OT world, you used to get the highest reliability using the oldest, most mature equipment that could stay the same, year after year, decade after decade. In the IT world, this is the worst possible situation – out of date electronics are the easiest targets to attack, with the most known vulnerabilities accumulated over time. In the IT world of the device where you are reading this, we have built up an impressive and agile security stack in response to these rapidly evolving threats, but it all depends on being able to install and patch whatever software changes we need as new Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTP’s) are invented. That is, in the IT world, rapid change and flexible software is essential to the security paradigm.
Does this security paradigm translate well to the OT world?
Not really. It creates a perfect storm for those concerned with defending manufacturing, energy, chemical and related OT infrastructure. On the one hand, the OT machinery is built for stability and cannot deliver the “five nines” reliability it was designed for if components are constantly being changed. On the other hand, we have IT threats which can now reach into OT fabric as all the networks blend, but our defense mechanisms against such threats require exactly this rapid pace of updating to block the latest TTP’s! It’s a Catch-22 situation.
The old answer to this was the air gap – keep OT networks away from IT, and you can evade much of the problem. (Stuxnet showed even this isn’t perfect protection – humans can still propagate a threat across an air gap if you trick them, and it turns out that this isn’t all that hard to do.) Today, the air gap is gone, due to the great economic efficiencies that come from adding modern digital communication pathways to everything we might need to manage remotely – the Internet of Things (IoT).
How do we solve this Catch-22 situation?
So, what can replace the old air gap? In a word, segmentation – it’s possible, even in complex, blended, IT/OT networks to keep data pathways separate, just as it’s essential for the same reason that we keep water pipes and sewer pipes separate when we build houses. The goal is to separate vulnerable and critical OT systems so that they can talk to each other and be managed remotely, but to open only these pathways, and not fall back to “open everything so that we can get the critical traffic through”. Thankfully, this goal is achievable, but the bad news is it’s error prone. Human operators are not good at maintaining complex firewall rules. When mistakes inevitably happen, they fall into two groups:
- errors that block something that is needed
- errors that leave something open
The first kind of error is immediately noticed, but sadly, the second kind is silent, and, unless you are doing something to automatically detect these errors and gaps, they will accumulate, making your critical OT fabric more and more fragile over time.
One way to combat this problem is to have a second set of humans – the auditors – review the segmentation regularly. Experience shows, though, that this just propagates the problem – no human beings are good at understanding network interactions and reasoning about complex systems. This is, however, a great job for computers – given stated goals, computers can check all the interactions and complex rules in a converged, multi-vendor, multi-language infrastructure, and make sure only intended communication is allowed, no more and no less.
In summary, IT/OT convergence is inevitable, given the economic benefits, but it creates an ugly Catch-22 scenario for those responsible for security and reliability – it’s not possible to be both super-stable and agile at the same time. The answer is network segmentation, not the old air gapped approach. The trouble with segmentation is it’s hard for humans to manage, maintain and audit without gaps creeping in. Finally, the solution to resolve this Catch-22 is to apply automation – using software such as from RedSeal to automatically verify your segmentation and prevent the inevitable drift, so that OT networks are as prepared for a hacker assault as they are for a natural disaster.