IT Security Dynamics and the Industrial IoT

The quest to understand production and operational factors, distribute this information to business systems and people within an organization, and directly improve business processes and profitability as a result is not new. In fact, it has been embraced by companies for decades. This collection of operational information for use in information or business systems is known as IT/OT convergence.

Getting IT and OT systems to work together to maximize business efficiency — while avoiding negative consequences, risks and pitfalls in the process — is a tall task. However, thanks to new technologies, this process is becoming more practical and is creating the opportunities for huge economic benefits when these two disciplines are successfully integrated. But, how does this convergence affect the security paradigm in large, geographically dispersed enterprises?

Let’s Talk Security

Traditionally, companies have a corporate firewall that divides the corporate IT space from OT space. With an Internet of Things (IoT) communications network, there is a need to protect the sensors and new applications on the OT side. However, even if there is a secure communication link, if the individual devices that are connected on the OT side become compromised and the threat has access to that communication link, a hacker can push malicious data, cause denial of service (DoS), or introduce malware or viruses to the entire network. There are many of ways to run into problems on the IoT front if companies are not careful in their network design security implementation.

On the IT side, corporate network security typically sees many threats. Those threats require significant attention, and consequently IT organizations have numerous options and tools to use, such as intrusion detection, log monitoring, network behavior monitoring, network inspections, whitelisting, firewalls, and more. The IT space has a much different attack surface than OT because with an IT network, the company can physically secure the building and control where the data goes in and out. Data escaping the building is relatively small in comparison to the OT space. WiFi that is leaking outside the building could be a vulnerability, but there are tools and ways to lock down that type of threat, and checkpoints where the IT department can analyze the traffic going through the network. In IT, bandwidth is plentiful and the network overhead associated with security is generally not a major factor.

Considering Industrial IoT Networks

IIoT networks, on the other hand, can span many miles with potentially hundreds of thousands of data points. An IIoT network likely consists of small embedded devices with long lifespans, making it very efficient. However, they are generally not like the Windows operating system, which is consistently conducting massive updates. Some embedded technologies don’t allow any updates, making it essential to carefully select the best devices for a network. Having thousands of these edge devices is where organizations will begin to see IT/OT convergence – many more points in the field where threats could be coming into the IT network.

Industrial organizations today are creating a connected infrastructure with IP-enabled sensors or IP/IIoT-enabled Access Gateways. The data generated by sensors at an asset location can be valuable to more than just the central control system. This might mean M2M communication with sensors talking directly to each other. It may mean that multiple systems consume the live, real-time sensor data directly from the field. It may even mean that operators connect their sensors directly to the cloud or other back office systems. If there is a way to share critical data while addressing security issues that can help provide information to key data users, then that information becomes increasingly valuable.

Security Through Obscurity is Not a Solution

IIoT solutions often utilize the widely deployed security technologies from the Internet to avoid the custom, one-off solutions of past industrial security, when it was used at all. IP technology makes it easier to deploy and talk to sensors, but it also makes it easier for intruders to see and snoop on valuable data streams. Security through obscurity is not a solution. There are many common attack vectors for industrial devices that become even more relevant when considering the IIoT infrastructures and fully networked, geographically dispersed projects.

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