5 steps for successful OT endpoint cybersecurity risk management

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5 steps for successful OT endpoint cybersecurity risk management

Operational Technology (OT) has become a heightened target for cybersecurity attacks. The need to address OT (operational technology) cyber risks has never been greater. New threats are emerging every day – both targeted as well as untargeted collateral damage risks. According to IBM, the manufacturing and energy sectors are now the second and third most targeted industries, respectively, increasing from eighth and ninth last year.

One of the most critical elements of this new set of OT security requirements is to manage and defend the endpoint. Organizations need endpoint security and protection to stop ransomware in its tracks, but also to demonstrate improvement and secure baselines to various stakeholders. Below are 5 steps for a successful OT endpoint cybersecurity risk management:

Step 1: Create 360-degree risk scores and profiles for each asset

This process begins with technology that enables deep vendor-agnostic, endpoint visibility including 100% software inventories, full patch status on all the application software as well as OS, detailed and regular information on configuration settings, password and user/accounts, defensive tool status such as A/V, whitelisting, network configuration rules and settings to understand network defenses, and asset criticality based on process and network.

This “360-degree” view of risk allows the organization to define the most effective and efficient means of remediating risks and securing a given endpoint. For instance, we obviously cannot deploy antivirus on a PLC, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t means to protect that asset through upstream compensating controls such as locking down its workstation or establishing a firewall in front of that device or through hardening the configuration of that device to stop the spread of a potential threat. Similarly, we may find two assets that are equally vulnerable, but one has multiple compensating protective controls such as application whitelisting, hardened configurations, etc. This allows the operator to make trade-offs on priorities and actions.

Read more about this in our whitepaper on Technology-Enabled Vulnerability Assessments.

There are various approaches that organizations can choose to build this “360-degree view”. Verve’s view is the approach needs to get directly to the endpoint if the endpoint is what we want to secure. Others argue that network traffic is enough. That is a debate for another blog. But, whichever you decide is the most effective, it needs to satisfy the goal of achieving a view of all the risks on that endpoint, not just what is communicating with it.

Step 2: Execute remediation plans based on the feasibility of different approaches

(i.e. configuration hardening, patching, network protection hardening, locking down endpoint protection elements, etc. on an asset-by-asset basis)

Too often, organizations start with a tool (EDR or Change Management or Network Anomaly Detection or Firewalls) without a robust endpoint security remediation plan. While these tools may be helpful, the remediation plan allows the organization to step through a sequenced roadmap of actions – and technologies – that drive a consistent improvement in the endpoint security management of the enterprise. Success requires a strategy that prioritizes the right type of endpoint security for each of the risks identified. Further reading: Security is a shared responsibility between the end user and the cloud provider

Step 3: Implement vendor-agnostic, but OT-safe endpoint cybersecurity management technology

Perhaps the largest OT security challenge comes from dependence on each OEM vendor to deploy their tool of choice on its systems. This leads to complexity, insecurity, and inefficiency. Successful organizations deploy an enterprise standard for endpoint security management that safely operates across vendor systems and enables centralized management functionality.  To be clear, these solutions do not try to disintermediate the OT operator.

Verve has been in the industrial controls industry for almost 30 years. We understand how critical it is to keep OT operators involved in any changes to their systems. However, by creating a centralized view of endpoint security, operators can “Think Global, but Act Local” to centralize endpoint detections, alerts, risks, etc. to a central team for analysis, response planning, etc., but – with technology – enable the OT operator that understands his or her system best, be involved in approving and perhaps testing any security response. We understand to someone in IT this may sound crazy – this extra step of including a “man in the middle” of the response action could slow response. Yes, it can. But it avoids the “Type II” error of stopping critical processes that may affect the safety of the overall system.

As stated above, insurers, regulators, directors, and others are beginning to require a clear demonstration of security improvement. Industrial operators will need to show how they have moved from “red” to “green” in security, how updated their patch or backup or AV status is, whether they have dormant accounts that create risk, etc. This kind of centralized, vendor-agnostic system allows for improved tracking, reporting, and auditing on an ongoing basis.

Step 4: XDR for OT cybersecurity

“XDR” is often thought of as pertaining to cloud or hybrid environments. Successful industrial organizations consider this same concept for OT as well. Because traditional EDR (endpoint detection and response) may not be effective on embedded devices in OT or even in purely automatic response mode on critical control systems OS-based devices, industrial security requires a wide range of telemetry and response to be effective.

The “X” may be different in OT than in the cloud. It may refer to traditional telemetry such as endpoint logs, network traffic alerts, AV alerts, etc. But in OT, it should also include device performance metrics, physical alarm data, etc.  By bringing these various forms of telemetry together, the endpoint detection becomes much more robust than if we just monitor packets for anomalous traffic.

Similarly, the “R” or response in EDR needs to be tuned for OT. The answer to each alert cannot be to shut down the plant. We need to adopt a mindset we call “Least Disruptive Response”. This is the notion that in any event, security should try to take the action which has the least impact on operations. This requires security has deep endpoint visibility discussed in Point 1 and the ability to take endpoint actions in Point 2. This enables the security personnel to identify the threat and endpoint information about that asset as well as other assets in the attack path.  Then, we must take a very specific action – at the endpoint – to stop that particular attack path. For instance, remove an account that is compromised, patch a particular vulnerability that is being exploited, remove a piece of risky software, adjust whitelisting rules, etc.

5. Establish a set of OT systems management guidelines and procedures

Last – but perhaps first in many ways – industrial organizations need to set their north star, their overall objective of security, as well as their expectations of maturity. This direction can flow down into policies, guidelines, and procedures to follow in implementing their endpoint security management. Different assets are likely to require different levels of security based on criticality, redundancy, etc.

We have seen clients successfully prioritize these assets at a site level and all the way down to individual assets in a plant and then design different security targets for each one. These policies also help define the kind of response time expected for the “XDR” for different types of attacks and assets. This systems management topic is worthy of its own whitepaper, but in short, establishing coordinated objectives and policies for OT endpoint security is key.

This 5-point approach has led to significant, rapid, and demonstrable improvements in industrial organizations’ OT cybersecurity maturity. Further, it is a way to get ahead of what’s coming: increased attacks, decreased resources, and greater reporting and auditing requirements.

This is an excerpt from the “Risk Management for OT Endpoint Security: 5 Steps for Success”. Read the whole article to also learn about OT endpoint security challenges in risk identification and remediation and ITSM best practices to leverage for OT risk management.


About the author

John LivingstonThis article was written by John Livingston is the CEO of Verve. He leads Verve’s mission to protect the world’s infrastructure. He brings 20+ years of experience from McKinsey & Co. advising large companies in strategy and operations. John’s committed to helping clients find the lowest cost and simplest solutions for controls, data and ICS security challenges.