What is OT Cyber Security and Why is it Important?

In today’s interconnected digital landscape, the convergence of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) has become increasingly prevalent, giving rise to a new domain of cybersecurity: OT cybersecurity. Industrywide adoption of automation, IoT devices, and interconnected systems comes with a significant opportunity to increase operational efficiency and, in turn, raises the challenge of safeguarding critical infrastructure and industrial processes from cyber threats, necessitating the implementation of a holistic OT cyber security approach.

Today’s post answers the following: What is OT cyber security, and what are some of its related challenges? It also sheds light on the best practices that help strengthen the security approach and minimize the risk of attacks. 

What is OT Cyber Security 

Operational Technology (OT) involves the hardware and software that is responsible for monitoring and controlling physical processes, mechanical systems, and infrastructure within different industrial sectors, including manufacturing, energy, transport, and utilities.

Different from Information Technology (IT) systems that mostly focus on data processing and information transfer, OT systems that operate industrial processes have a far greater impact on the physical environment and are, therefore, critical to the seamless functioning of infrastructure and industrial processes. OT cyber security implies the protection of these operational technologies from cyber threats that could result in operation disruptions, safety violations, and financial losses. IT cybersecurity in the traditional approach is different from OT cyber security, which is coordinated with the defensive mechanisms of the physical processes.

OT systems include sensors, actuators, controllers, human-machine interfaces (HMIs), and communication networks such as Ethernet, Modbus, and Profibus. These components are part of a close monitoring, automation, and control system, and, as such, they are vulnerable to a number of cyber threats – malware, ransomware, insider threats, and supply chain attacks.

OT environments are usually based on legacy systems with antiquated software and proprietary protocols and have security features at a minimum, making them an easy target. Additionally, the interconnection of the OT and IT networks also increases vulnerability because cyber-attacks targeting the IT infrastructure can affect the OT systems as well.

In order to deal with OT security challenges, organizations should take a comprehensive approach to OT cybersecurity. It includes risk management, access control, intrusion detection, incident response, and conformity with industry regulations. It also implies that the two IT and OT cyber security teams have to work together. Continued training and awareness programs should be introduced to teach employees to recognize and avoid cyber threats and adhere to the best practices for reducing the risks.

OT Security Challenges 

There are numerous OT security challenges ranging from compatibility issues caused by legacy systems to insider attacks and human error. Here are some of these challenges: 

– Compatibility Issues

A lot of current OT systems were designed and implemented decades ago, often being based on proprietary protocols and technologies that are hard to update or integrate with modern cybersecurity solutions. The costs of upgrading or replacing these legacy operating systems are often high and may be disruptive; thus, organizations opt to keep using outdated technology, which may be more vulnerable to cyber threats.

– Standardization and Regulatory Issues 

In contrast to IT environments that normally have their protocols and regulations standardized, OT environments rarely have uniform security standards and compliance. The lack of specific OT cybersecurity compliance frameworks can lead to substandard security measures and the omission of protection mechanisms for different sectors and enterprises.

– Vulnerability to Cyber Attacks

OT systems are growing connected to external networks; therefore, they are vulnerable to a plethora of cyber-attacks. OT vulnerabilities can be exploited to stop operations, damage physical objects, and steal sensitive information, which is a major concern for the safety of critical infrastructure and the public.

– Insider Threats and Human Error 

The human factor is a major issue in OT cybersecurity. Insider threats, either intentional or unintentional, aggravate the problem when a malicious insider or a negligent employee may disrupt the systems, damage the operations, or introduce vulnerabilities by mistake. Human factors, like configuration errors, improper maintenance, and unawareness of the cybersecurity principles, can also become vulnerabilities in terms of OT attacks.

– Integration with IT Systems

The merging of OT and IT amplifies the cybersecurity management complications, as traditional IT security solutions might inappropriately deal with the specificities and characteristics of OT environments. Differentiated operational priorities, risk tolerance, and resource constraints between IT and OT teams add to the problem of making cybersecurity implementation effective with inadequate collaboration and coordination.

A holistic approach to OT cybersecurity that is technical has a regulatory framework, organizational policies, and workforce training is required. Through the recognition of identified threats and vulnerabilities, the OT’s environments will be able to design operational resilience, risk mitigation, and infrastructure security against cyber-attacks.

Best Practices in OT Cyber Security

Cybersecurity in the OT domain is founded upon a dynamic and holistic model that combines people, processes, and technology to shield critical infrastructure and industrial operations. The following practices improve organizations’ defenses, minimize the risk of cyber-attacks, and further strengthen the OT environments against threats and vulnerabilities. 

– Strategy 

A layered security approach is essential. It utilizes multiple security controls across the numerous layers of OT infrastructure, such as network segmentation, access control, encryption, and endpoint security. Moreover, it is also important to employ firewalls and implement detection systems like IDS and IPS to monitor and filter network traffic, detect suspicious activities, and block dangerous attacks.

– Management 

Vulnerability assessments and penetration testing help determine and come up with an adequate ranking of security loopholes in OT systems, including devices and software. It is also important to set up a formal patch management process as it helps in the timely deployment of updates to minimize vulnerabilities. 

– Training 

Cybersecurity training and awareness programs equip staff with knowledge of the top cyber-security threats, cybersecurity best practices, and their rights and duties in the fight against cyber-security crimes. Moreover, another good practice is to establish a supportive culture with the employees being encouraged to report suspicious activities, observe security policies, and follow the established incident response procedures.

– Collaboration 

Collaboration among the IT and OT teams aids in developing common strategies, sharing threat intelligence to identify common threats, and responding to cybersecurity incidents effectively and in a coordinated manner. Establishing cross-functional teams or committees to ensure regular meetings, information sharing, and joint decision-making for prevailing cybersecurity issues in the IT and OT environments is beneficial in this regard. 

– Compliance 

Ensure the compliance of the organization’s OT processes with the standards, regulations, and frameworks. Follow the directions and practices stated in these standards to build a good security basis and show regulatory compliance to key stakeholders, customers, and regulatory authorities.


From legacy systems to regulatory gaps and from evolving cyber threats to the convergence of IT and OT environments, organizations must develop a countermeasure to ensure the security and system failures of their operational technology infrastructure. A comprehensive approach to OT cyber security helps protect critical assets and maintain business continuity. Periodic vulnerability assessments, staff training, collaboration between IT and OT teams, and compliance with industry standards are effective measures to optimize cyber resilience and minimize the effect of security incidents.

Arthur Lawrence’s holistic cybersecurity solution suite is your ally in protecting your systems and data from vulnerabilities. It encompasses everything, ranging from assessment, awareness training, and advisory to vulnerability management and managed security services. Contact us to get a consultation and assessment of your cybersecurity needs! 

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