Technology not always the best fix for operational security issues, expert warns

Companies must be prepared to end-of-life old security investments and start anew rather than trying to endlessly patch up ponderous legacy environments, an infrastructure-security expert has warned as growing executive attention to cybersecurity empowers CISOs to execute new security mandates.

Although ongoing reports of large-scale cyberattacks compromising both business and government targets had driven greater awareness at the board level, Verizon global critical infrastructure protection cybersecurity lead Bob Jennings warned that many companies still had blinkers on by focusing their efforts too narrowly on specific security issues.

“You need to think about not just you, but about the collective whole,” Jennings told CSO Australia.

“All [attackers] need is a little opening in the business, and they can impact that business – and public confidence in that business. Organisations that feel they are off the radar, need to understand that the consequences even for a minor breach or incident can be fairly significant if they look at the collective whole.”

In a growing number of cases, that big-picture story increasingly needed to be built around the requirements of operational technology (OT) that had never been designed to function – or to be secured – as part of that big picture. This deficiency, Jennings warned, meant that many companies pursuing otherwise sound cybersecurity agendas were failing to consider, or effectively address, the specific needs of monitoring, production, SCADA and other operational systems.

“OT was developed without the knowledge that it would ever be hyperconnected,” Jennings explained. “This introduced a lot of unknowns that organisations are just starting to see – both in terms of how the OT can compromise corporate or business systems, and how corporate or business systems can compromise the OT.”

As head of Verizon's RISK security-analytics and response team – a multifaceted group whose outputs include the widely-cited Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR) – Jennings has seen firsthand how lack of understanding around the commonality between IT and OT systems continues to compromise corporate security strategies.

Many times, businesses mistakenly work on the assumption that techniques from one space can be easily extended to the other – and stick to that assumption so ferociously that they fail to appreciate when it would be better to simply start over.

“There is a role for both IT and OT,” Jennings explained, “but the problem in today's world is that most people don't understand how to reach that middle ground. Most organisations have this vision of bolting on and improving new security tools – even when, in reality, improving on the old system is not the best solution. Most systems will benefit from a complete review.”

Many OT environments can be “properly secured from a physical standpoint and don't require all the IT hardware that we throw around,” he added.

“A lot of the IT systems don't work and aren't necessary when you look at the OT side of the world; it's also important to have conversations on the people side. That's a big change from the past, where we looked at how to throw technology at a problem, then looked at doing the people and processes to make the technology work.”

Most companies already had a robust model of risk management that can guide efforts to rationalise IT-security philosophy, with established workplace-safety guidelines reflecting both a clear understanding of different kinds of risk, and effective strategies for minimising organisational exposure to those risks.

Taking a similar approach to IT-security risk will allow companies to build a bigger-picture of both IT and OT exposures – injecting often-missing pragmatism into IT-security remediation efforts.

Read more: ​Encrypted email firm ProtonMail stiffed after paying DDoS ransom

“If you have a safety incident you know that it costs money and impacts your employees and your brand,” Jennings explained. “Security is no different: if we look at following the same path of onboarding and continuous messaging, we would develop way more support for a secure environment than a lot of the technical processes that we're throwing at the problem.”

This paradigm is an important one for IT-security executives honing their strategic pitches around investments for 2016, he aded: “when we look forward into 2016, I'm telling customers they really need to think about security a little bit differently. What we're going to see moving forward is a complete evolution in the way we secure things.”

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