Why Harness the Full Potential of Zero-Trust Architecture to Secure OT Environments?

Zero-trust architecture is becoming popular because it is a more comprehensive cybersecurity framework than previous castle-and-moat models. Increasing internal threat actors and social engineering call for more robust measures. Small businesses and governments cannot trust anyone inside or outside, so they must take action to ensure their and their clients’ valuable data is safe.

Critical infrastructure such as utility providers and medical facilities are at high risk for cyber threats, requiring increased safety tools and decreased trust for operational technologies. How do zero-trust architecture principles put OT on a positive trajectory for increased resilience?

The Zero-Trust Architecture Principles in OT

Zero-trust implementation constantly refers to the phrase “never trust, always verify.” Experts construct ZTA to authorize, authenticate and keep records of access requests. It does not matter if someone is outside or inside an organization. ZTA eliminates the perception any network has an edge. Workplaces are more mobile and international than ever, blurring the lines even further. 

Implementation still requires well-tuned and secure segmentation, remote systems and threat identification, much like in IT incorporation. OT ZTA focuses on protecting against disrupting physical processes powered by machinery instead of safeguarding digital assets like data. 

The standards for ZTA are under NIST 800-207. They embrace zero-trust architecture principles, prioritizing minimal lateral movement internally and preventing as many breaches as possible. The specific tenets include the following:

1. All data and computing sources and services are resources. Their location, whether on the cloud or in a data center, does not determine safety.
2. All communication is secured no matter the location of the network.
3. Systems grant resource access for every session to assist network flow.
4. Zero-trust policy is dynamic and curated for unique environments and user behaviors.
5. Organizations are responsible for monitoring the validity of their measures.
6. Authentication and authorization are also dynamic yet strict before every access allowance.
7. Enterprises collect data on resources and network infrastructure for continued improvements.

What ZTA Looks Like in OT Environments

OT environments and devices are too powerful to neglect these principles. They contain everything from fire safety systems to physical building access controls. Here is what implementing ZTA principles in OT looks like and how it boosts protection.

Compromised Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) forging Industry 4.0 falls apart if internal threat actors on production lines disable data-gathering abilities in supervisory control and data acquisition systems (SCADA). Providers no longer have visibility over product quality or safety, misconstruing how well they achieve metrics. Implementing ZTA principles ensures SCADA and related OT authenticates changes before executing. Plus, ZTA collects information on approved adjustments and inconsistent data points to help with risk identification.

Similarly, remote terminal units cannot perform off-site diagnostics for accurate chemical dosing in wastewater if hackers intentionally remove functionality as part of an attack. The remote connection is more secure with ZTA since there’s a higher chance of dismissing malicious access requests.

A corporation using energy monitoring and safety systems to achieve sustainability goals would have more accurate and safe technologies with ZTA. If these systems connect to other OT hubs, like building management systems or lighting controls, it is even more critical to implement ZTA principles across the OT attack surface. 

A breach in energy management could cause outages and safety hazards while disrupting data collection. This may seem less important in the name of safety. However, it is essential to consider if providing accurate, consistent metrics influences stakeholders.

How ZTA Prevents OT Threats

A 2023 report relayed how 75% of OT outfits had a breach in the last year, and 32% of companies stated hackers moved from OT into IT environments. The survey reveals how OT is an entry point for IT infrastructure, making safeguarding more important. 

Protecting OT is more than keeping those resources safe — it is also a service to the world’s information technology security. Hackers need elevated skill sets to breach and manipulate OT ZTA compared to traditional IT, but it does not mean the assets are less vulnerable. 

Zero trust is arguably the most critical in governmental and federal OT. Infrastructure and peripherals must be well-tested, made of sturdy materials and customized for unique defense systems. Federal ZTA tools and digital structures require compliance with stricter models. Threat actors know this, and it is a possible deterrent. 

The more complex the walls are to break down, the fewer OT breaches will be as companies learn how many resources hackers must expend to succeed. However, there is too much profit to make from breaching national security — attempts will persist.

A United States Department of Defense case study exhibited the benefits it experienced with OT after implementing ZTA. It established the highest degree of cybersecurity maturity after combining ZTA with self-learning AI for rapid detection. The duo was essential for harnessing the power of data while orchestrating response. 

The DoD has priceless insight now, which directs its actions for the future. The information’s timelessness and scalability only strengthen the ZTA of OT as time passes. It may learn the following from the data:

● The average time of day requests are made
● The balance of familiar and unfamiliar requests
● What resources authorized users access the most
● Common server request methods
● The categories of potential threats based on unintentional access allowances

Challenges OT Faces to Incorporate ZTA

OT encounters different challenges than IT environments when moving to ZTA. The principles focus on authenticating identities, which is only sometimes relevant in lower levels of OT. A programmable logic computer usually does not ask who sends commands. 

Would authorizing every command be disruptive to operations or increase safety? ZTA may know the activity that looks atypical for the timing and location of specific orders, but learning to question behavior takes time and data collection. OT machinery does not require these measures because some commands need immediate attention. ZTA should not impede operators or processes, and embedded ZTA might.

Blending OT ZTA with IT ZTA is another struggle some corporations have. Ideally, each department would synergize for ultimate network protection, but use cases and employment vary among teams with some overlap. Inconsistencies in implementation may cause oversights, especially if communication is poor.

What OT Gains From Implementing ZTA

Assuming network requests are always hostile delivers benefits immediately. It rewrites the expectation that there will always be incoming threats in OT environments, increasing awareness for staff. Incorporating ZTA in OT permits constant visibility over company resources without requiring downtime for manual observation. 

Incorporating ZTA allows OT to phase out older security principles common in the sector. The Purdue model for industrial control systems and brownfield smart tech deployment are some with notable vulnerabilities. Each separates itself from IT zones instead of blending with them.

ZTA operates more efficiently and enhances both because it better protects legacy equipment with longstanding cybersecurity concerns. Older OT equipment manufacturers did not have security in mind when creating them. It is more likely machines were made with cybersecurity protections instead of defenses against physical process manipulation.

Most of these systems automate tedious processes, collecting information in relevant software for easy understanding. It compiles how many requests hit the network, how many it accepted and turned away, and the number of suspected threats. Data may integrate with other technologies like AI and machine learning to get even more detailed insights into activity and threat levels, embracing the final tenet of ZTA.

Programs redirect suspicious activity to cybersecurity analysts for further investigation. Advanced detection methods like these increase defenses, analysts’ awareness of traffic and understanding of the modern hacking meta. Customers, employees and stakeholders notice these efforts, appreciating how their data and financial investments are secure.

Increasing reputation and corporate resilience is the most vital long-lasting benefit of implementing ZTA. Because of its adaptability, zero trust is perpetually scalable to whatever new assets a business acquires. The cost of breaches is skyrocketing, but ZTA saves companies potentially over $1 million during an event. OT is too diverse and inconsistent with the number of attacks hitting increasing attack vectors. Every implementation is a money- and reputation-saving effort.

Leveraging Zero Trust for Optimal OT Safety

Unfortunately, cybersecurity threats have become so severe that nobody earns longstanding trust anymore — they must constantly verify it. ZTA automates most of these processes to keep critical infrastructure and industry workers safe so their clients remain in good hands. It provides peace of mind for company officials, employees and customers by maintaining the security vital for operations.

There is no comprehensive cybersecurity solution for critical OT, but infrastructure becomes more reliable and prepared by assuming the worst-case scenario. ZTA equips OT with the tools it needs to keep civilian lights on, pharmaceuticals reaching health care providers and financial institutions from needing to claim insurance. It is time for industries to normalize ZTA because it prioritizes safety from every angle.

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Emily Newton
Editor-in-Chief at Revolutionized | + posts

Emily Newton is a technology journalist with over five years in the industry. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest innovations

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technology journalist with over five years in the industry. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest innovations

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