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MDR and OT: Improving Cybersecurity for Manufacturers

With the stats from 2022 showing that almost a quarter of all cyberattacks worldwide involved manufacturing companies, it’s clear that something is awry from a cybersecurity standpoint. Much of what puts manufacturers at risk is the challenges of securing operational technology (OT). This article describes how managed detection and response (MDR) could support OT and meet its unique security challenges.   

OT Cybersecurity Challenges  

Operational technology includes industrial control systems (ICS), Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems and other systems used to manage industrial operations. Some of the unique security challenges with these systems reflect that manufacturing technology isn’t as evolved from a security perspective as in other industries. In contrast, other challenges are the byproduct of the nature of manufacturing operations. Here’s a brief run-through of some key OT cybersecurity challenges: 

  • Many OT environments rely on older systems designed and implemented long before cybersecurity was a significant concern. These legacy systems often lack basic security features such as encryption, authentication and regular security updates, which makes them more vulnerable to cyber threats than technology systems used in other industries. For example, news emerged in 2022 that 56 different vulnerabilities, collectively referred to as Icefall, impacted thousands of industrial devices.  
  • On a related note, part of the difficulty in manufacturing is that vulnerabilities often persist unpatched because downtime is intolerable. OT systems are often critical to operations, and downtime is usually highly disruptive and costly. This reality makes regular maintenance, like patching and updates, challenging to schedule and execute without impacting production. 
  • A third pertinent challenge is that the attack surface expands as OT environments become more integrated with information technology (IT) systems to improve efficiency and data analysis. This integration can expose OT systems to vulnerabilities and threats that are more common in the IT world, which they weren’t originally designed to handle. 
  • Lastly, the global cybersecurity workforce shortage now stands at four million people. Manufacturing companies and industrial operators may feel this talent shortage more acutely given that training for OT personnel tends to focus more on ensuring reliability and safety of machines and systems rather than cybersecurity.  

How MDR Benefits OT 

Here’s how MDR offers a proactive approach to dealing with the specific security threats and challenges manufacturers face that depend on operational technology.   

Early Detection and Rapid Response 

Rapid response is crucial in OT environments where a cyberattack could take down vital processes and potentially catastrophic physical consequences. Early detection of threats ensures that potential disruptions to critical operational processes are identified before they can cause significant harm. By rapidly responding to cyber threats, MDR services can prevent or minimize operational downtime, which is crucial in these environments where continuous operation is essential. 

MDR services use advanced analytics and threat intelligence to detect anomalies that could indicate a cybersecurity threat and enable quick containment and remediation. Services also combine automated tools with human expertise. Automated tools can quickly contain and mitigate certain threats, while cybersecurity experts can make informed decisions on complex issues that require nuanced analysis. This combination ensures both speed and accuracy in the response. 

Integration with Diverse Technologies

As industries strive for efficiency and innovation, legacy systems are increasingly integrated with modern IT technologies. The need for better data analytics, remote monitoring and automated controls drives this integration. However, integration creates a heterogeneous network where vulnerable legacy systems are connected to more secure, modern systems, potentially exposing them to cyber threats in IT networks. 

MDR services can provide a unified security framework that bridges the gap between legacy systems and modern IT infrastructure. Recognizing the unique operational requirements of OT environments, MDR services can customize their security approach. This includes adjusting security measures to accommodate the limited connectivity of some legacy systems and ensuring that security workflows or tools don’t disrupt critical industrial processes.  

Expertise Specific to OT

MDR providers that specialize in OT environments bring valuable expertise to the table. They understand the operational necessities and constraints of OT environments, such as the need for minimal disruption to ongoing operations and the specific vulnerabilities of OT systems. This expertise allows for a tailored detection and response strategy while also helping to address the OT security skills shortages that hamper many manufacturers’ cybersecurity efforts.  

Proactive Threat Hunting

MDR services often include proactive threat hunting. This involves actively searching for indicators of compromise or vulnerabilities that could be exploited in the future. This proactive approach is particularly important in OT environments, where vulnerabilities might not be as well-known or as frequently patched as in IT environments.  

Compliance Management

Another benefit of bringing together MDR and OT is that MDR providers can help organizations manage and maintain compliance with various cybersecurity regulations and standards. Some regulations require continuous monitoring of networks for potential security threats—MDR services fulfill this requirement by providing 24/7 monitoring.  

MDR providers can conduct regular security assessments and gap analyses to identify areas where the OT operator’s cybersecurity practices may not meet regulatory standards. This proactive approach helps address potential compliance issues before they become problematic (and costly). MDR services can help operators of OT develop and implement security policies and procedures that comply with relevant regulations. This includes tailoring these policies to specific OT environments’ unique operational needs and technological landscape. 

Operating OT brings a unique blend of cybersecurity challenges rarely encountered in traditional IT settings. MDR addresses these challenges head-on by offering continuous, specialized monitoring and rapid response capabilities tailored to the distinctive needs of OT. Its proactive approach to threat detection and incident response, combined with regulatory compliance support and adaptability to diverse technology landscapes, makes MDR well-suited for augmenting OT security needs in sectors like manufacturing.  

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