The Critical Convergence of OT and IT Cybersecurity

In today’s increasingly digitised world, the threat of cyberattacks involving operational technology (OT) systems is increasing, becoming more apparent and frequent. Whilst cyberattacks of any nature can be detrimental, attacks associated with OT systems can be even more catastrophic, as these breaches can often threaten the integrity of information, as well as the functionality and safety of a building.

The influx of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and connected systems, as well as the escalating complexity of securing OT systems, are some of the main challenges faced by businesses when it comes to OT cyberattacks. As such, it is imperative for businesses to prioritise the security of these critical systems.

Rise in OT attacks

The rise of cyberattacks, especially in the realm of OT and information technology (IT) systems, has become a critical concern in recent years. As technology advances, so do the tactics of malicious actors, and with critical infrastructure becoming increasingly digitised, threat actors have been exploiting vulnerabilities within many businesses’ infrastructure.

The seriousness of this nature of attack was highlighted in September 2023, when two casinos in Las Vegas were victims to an IT cybersecurity breach. This breach caused slot machines to go down and rendered hotel cards useless, among other disruptions. Although this example demonstrates the severe consequences of any cybersecurity attack, it is critical for businesses to recognise that any attack associated with OT can be catastrophic and can mean loss of business and data for victims. Unlike IT cybersecurity attacks – which primarily endanger data – OT cybersecurity breaches threaten the integrity of information, along with the functionality and safety of buildings.

For instance, in commercial office spaces, OT cybersecurity attacks could compromise building automation systems, leading to disruptions in heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) systems, lighting, or even access controls. Malicious actors could manipulate smart building technologies, causing safety concerns and operational inefficiencies, especially if authorised personnel cannot gain access to the building. In these cases, operations cease, and entire systems can come to a standstill.

Given the growing complexity of securing OT systems – due to the surge in industrial IoT devices – it is crucially important for businesses to prioritise the security of these systems.

A layered security approach

When addressing OT cybersecurity attacks in buildings, it is imperative for businesses to recognise that buildings are not just physical structures, but they also serve as vital hubs of modern life, encompassing offices, entertainment facilities, factories, hospitals and more, making them attractive targets for cyber threats.

Buildings now host various smart systems, including access control, HVAC systems, and lighting. While this digital transformation enhances efficiency, it also introduces vulnerabilities, making buildings attractive targets for cyberattacks. As the lines blur between the physical and digital worlds, attackers exploit new avenues to infiltrate these spaces.

In attempts to make buildings more resistant to cyber threats, building operators should follow a step-by-step security plan. First, they need to check all systems in the building and see how they work together. After understanding these systems, it becomes possible to identify weak points and make a plan, which should include utilising appropriate cybersecurity applications that help to protect critical assets within the building. Operators can then begin to install cybersecurity monitoring and create an incident readiness plan to be prepared for future incidents. This convergence provides real-time threat detection and response capabilities, bolstering a building’s defence against cyberattacks.

Nonetheless, while these measures are just a few steps building owners and operators can undertake to reduce vulnerabilities and the potential impact of attacks, each plan will vary based on the building’s security requirements and budget.

A secure future

Addressing the convergence of OT and IT cybersecurity in the built environment demands a thorough strategy. It is essential to recognise that buildings are not just physical spaces, but intricate digital ecosystems.

Looking ahead, OT security calls for a comprehensive approach that integrates IT practices and building management. This alignment is crucial to fortify the security of the spaces we depend on, emphasising the need for a holistic perspective in safeguarding our built environments.

Mirel Sehic is the vice president general manager of cybersecurity for Honeywell Building Technologies (HBT). He leads a team that is responsible for educating and helping customers’ efforts to protect their operational technology (OT) cybersecurity critical infrastructure environments. Mirel oversees the cybersecurity business globally, including the integration with development, partnerships, marketing of solutions, sales and operations.

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