For the first two decades of the Internet era, operational technology (OT) in places like factories and power plants remained mostly isolated from IT systems. While the fear of cyber intrusions grew among their counterparts in IT, workers in these physical settings were far more focused on safety precautions to protect people from the machines, products, and chemicals within those spaces.
While increasing connectivity to OT systems can save an organization millions of dollars, the savings can pale in comparison to the cost of a cybersecurity breach — from brand reputation damage to the potential harm from a physical threat — as we recently saw with the US pipeline shut down due to a ransomware attack. If such connectivity is not carefully managed, hackers who infiltrate the IT network may gain access into OT — at which point they can do everything from disrupting the operation of a specific tool or machine, to causing an explosion or poisoning a water supply. As we have seen in publicly reported cases, successful OT cyberattacks can shut businesses down for days or weeks, causing widespread impacts across an organization’s ecosystem of suppliers and customers.
But in the past decade, the business case for connecting computerized OT systems with the IT systems running the business has become so compelling that companies are rushing to create links between the two. Through these links, IT is now regularly connected to and communicating with the operational infrastructure. Leveraging technology in this way has led to full-scale digital transformation within the OT environment, improving efficiencies, automating processes, and extracting data insights. Cars today have enough software built into them that you almost forget about the steel. Pharmaceutical companies are now regularly using smart manufacturing, intelligent factories, and IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) to create new drugs in record time. The electric grid is running with smart metering technology to identify warning signs of potential outages before the lights actually go out.
- In an IT / OT-linked environment, future hackers will target much more than just networks.
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