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Secure Data Protection

Balancing Operational Technology and Zero Trust (IT vs OT)

January 23, 2024

8 minute read

The modern office space looks wildly different than it did even five years ago. Between major advancements in operational technology (OT) and the evolution of the work environment (and sometimes the work-from-home environment), businesses and their employees have much higher expectations for technology than they did in years past.

The adoption of additional technology, though, creates extra vulnerabilities and potential entry points into company networks with sensitive data for malicious actors. This creates contrasting priorities and often devolves into IT vs OT.

As such, one of the most important conversations in the cybersecurity space right now is how organizations can blend these technologies to build a modern tech stack that meets the needs of the modern employee while still adhering to a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy.

Addressing cyber risk as a company is difficult to do if you don’t have a good grasp of your current defenses. Find out how your strategy measures up in DOT Security’s Cybersecurity Checklist: How Covered Is Your Business?

What Is Operational Technology

Operational technology (OT) serves as the backbone of industries where physical processes are monitored and controlled. It encompasses the hardware and software dedicated to managing industrial control systems (ICS) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. It's also the backbone for many IoT and smart devices that individuals and organizations both use regularly.

Unlike conventional information technology (IT), which primarily deals with data processing and communication, OT focuses on the real-time control and automation of critical processes. Industries such as manufacturing, energy, and transportation heavily rely on OT for maintaining operational efficiency. But the umbrella of operational technology includes devices and solutions in almost every industry across the market.

Some common examples of operational technology include smart thermostats and other smart sensors, building automation systems, and even software bots. OT is also heavily integrated into critical infrastructure systems.

From power grids to manufacturing lines, OT systems ensure that essential services are running smoothly. However, the very nature of these systems; designed with efficiency, reliability, and open networks in mind; often pose security challenges.

This is especially the case because most operational technologies thrive in an open network environment wherein identity access management, authorization, and network segmentation take a back seat.

Understanding the unique characteristics of operational technology is essential to implementing effective security measures to protect your network.

What Is Zero Trust in IT?

Zero trust is one of the big ”movements” in modern cybersecurity but it’s also a buzzword. A zero trust security mindset challenges the traditional approach of perimeter-based protection. In a perimeter-based security model, users working inside the defined network are considered trustworthy.

Zero trust, however, operates on the principle of "never trust, always verify." This security model makes users go through continual authentication and verification as they access different aspects of the network, regardless of where they’re located.

With a zero trust model in place, every user, device, or system attempting to access resources must adhere to verification processes. This approach minimizes the attack surface, reducing the risk of unauthorized access and lateral movement within the network.

Zero trust principles are rooted in the belief that the traditional security perimeter is no longer sufficient in the face of sophisticated cyber threats and the modern working environment. Therefore, entities must prove their identity and authorization at every access attempt, contributing to a more robust and proactive cybersecurity posture.

Balancing Ease of Access With Responsible Security

Operational technology is focused on efficiency and works best in an open network, while in direct contrast, a zero trust cybersecurity policy restricts access through a process of continual user authorization.

With that in mind, balancing ease of access with responsible security is a critical challenge for organizations implementing operational technology across their processes and workflows.

Achieving the right balance involves a layered approach that begins with a full-scale network audit. Through this audit, organizations can identify and prioritize critical assets, assess vulnerabilities, and begin implementing granular access controls.

One of the main challenges here is ensuring that the cybersecurity measures implemented don’t hinder productivity. Achieving the right balance sees zero trust principles tailored to the unique characteristics of operational technology, enhancing security without compromising function or efficiency.

Not only will overly stringent cybersecurity protocols complicate system functions, it can also frustrate employees to the point of intentionally working around the security measures in place. This is how undocumented processes and shadow IT issues begin to arise.

Addressing this challenge, though, helps protect organizations against sophisticated cyberattacks that target under-secured operational technology. One of the benefits that stems from working with a team of cybersecurity experts on your network architecture and security is their ability to evaluate operational needs and match that with practical security protocols.

The Future of OT and IT Convergence

As technology continues to advance, the convergence of operational technology, IT, and cybersecurity becomes inevitable.

This intersection introduces new challenges, and organizations need to consider how they can best protect themselves, their data, and their network without hindering productivity or functionality.

The future holds the promise of a unified cybersecurity strategy that seamlessly integrates zero trust principles across the entire tech stack of the organization. This convergence is driven by the need for a comprehensive defense strategy that protects against sophisticated cyber threats.

As the synergy between OT, IT, and cybersecurity strengthens, organizations can leverage this integration to create a robust zero trust framework that protects both operational processes and sensitive data.

With how quickly technology is advancing it’s vital that business leaders and decision-makers stay up to date with the most recent trends in their industry, in business tech, and in the cybersecurity space. The relationship between IT, OT, and cybersecurity is only going to continue to evolve, and you’ll want your business solutions to keep pace.

Wrapping Up on Operational Technology and Zero Trust Security

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, which is why the clash between operational technology and a zero trust security framework is so important for modern organizations to address. While the former thrives in an open network environment in which systems and devices can communicate with one another, the latter imposes a segmented network with strict authorization protocols.

Finding the right balance between operational tech and zero trust security involves careful consideration of access controls, continuous verification, and a proactive stance against emerging cyberattacks. As OT and IT continue to converge, it becomes imperative to embrace a future where responsible cybersecurity and operational efficiency coexist in harmony.

To strengthen your cybersecurity strategy, you first need to know where it’s falling short and where it’s succeeding. Walk through DOT Security’s Cybersecurity Checklist: How Covered Is Your Business? to find out where your cybersecurity can improve.