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Blog / 5 min read

The Ultimate Guide to OT Vulnerability Management

The Claroty Team
/ January 18th, 2024

In today’s interconnected world, operational technology (OT) plays a vital role in managing and controlling the physical processes and devices that are critical to business operations. However, as OT systems become more heavily integrated into the information technology (IT) realm, the risk of vulnerabilities and other cyber threats have become a significant concern. As these cybersecurity threats continue to rise and the security landscape evolves, critical infrastructure organizations require OT vulnerability management strategies to safeguard their industrial processes from cyber attacks. 

What is OT Vulnerability Management?

According to CISA, “the vulnerability management domain focuses on the process by which organizations identify, analyze, and manage vulnerabilities in a critical service’s operating environment.” Compared to IT vulnerability management, OT vulnerability management is more intricate. Although the overarching goal of identifying and addressing security vulnerabilities is the same, IT vulnerability management emphasizes data confidentiality, integrity, and availability. OT vulnerability management on the other hand centers around industrial control systems (ICS), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, and other devices used to monitor and control physical processes in critical infrastructure environments. Ultimately, the goal of OT vulnerability management is to reduce the prevalence and impact of vulnerabilities and exploitable conditions across organizations and technologies that could impact safety, reliability, and functionality of industrial processes. This goal, however, is growing increasingly out of reach as organizations are being targeted by malicious actors eager to weaponize their vulnerabilities. 

Challenges of Establishing Successful OT Vulnerability Management 

Most critical infrastructure organizations understand the severe implications cyberattacks can have on their OT systems, however, they tend to have a difficult time prioritizing OT vulnerabilities to effectively mitigate the most dangerous threats in their environment. This is due to the following challenges that accompany many risk-based vulnerability management (RBVM) strategies:

  1. Lack of OT Asset Visibility: The OT assets in industrial environments utilize proprietary protocols that render them nearly invisible to traditional IT security tools. Without a detailed profile of each OT asset, it is not only impossible to assess it, but impossible to manage its vulnerabilities and risks. 

  2. Standard Vulnerability Scanners are Unsafe: Solutions that are widely used to scan IT assets for vulnerabilities generate too much traffic to be safely used in OT environments — if used, they can disrupt operations or worse, disable them completely. 

  3. Deficiencies in Vulnerability Prioritization Strategies: Traditional OT security solutions and conventional wisdom guide vulnerability prioritization based on the common vulnerability scoring system (CVSS), rather than based on exploitation likelihood. This method of vulnerability prioritization has let many organizations’ often-already overburdened personnel to expend resources prioritizing vulnerabilities that are or will not ever be exploited.

  4. Patching is Rarely Permitted: Patching any vulnerability typically requires downtime, which most OT environments cannot tolerate due to the processes they underpin. Therefore, maintenance windows occur rarely, no matter the vulnerability or risk. 

OT Vulnerability Management Best Practices

Due to the complexity and challenges to achieving industrial OT vulnerability management, it is important for organizations to align with the following best practices to ensure the are prepared to tackle vulnerability management in their unique environments: 

  1. Discover Assets: Without full-spectrum asset visibility, effective cybersecurity controls — including OT vulnerability management — are impossible to implement. Asset discovery details, such as asset type, model, device manufacturer, IP address, and device location are critical in order to effectively prioritize and manage vulnerabilities. As a best practice, organizations should utilize an OT security tool with multiple, highly flexible discovery methods that can be mixed and matched to deliver full visibility in the manner best suited to your organization's distinct needs.

  2. Identify Vulnerabilities: Once asset visibility is established, organizations can then identify the vulnerabilities located in their environments. By correlating your asset inventory with the common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVE) system and other weaknesses, organizations can pinpoint vulnerable assets and uncover the risk blindspots in their OT environment. 

  3. Prioritize Vulnerabilities: After vulnerabilities are identified and blindspots uncovered, organizations can then prioritize the most important vulnerabilities in their OT environment based on which ones are (or are most likely to be) actively exploited. During this step, having a standardized formula for calculating device risk will enable better decision making for prioritization and also help your organization measure and track risk remediation over time.   

  4. Scale Workflows: As a best practice, it is important to use dedicated OT workflows or existing IT ticketing orchestration, and/or related tools to mature your OT vulnerability management tactics to scalable workflows. With the help of an advanced OT cybersecurity platform, your organization can easily extend existing IT vulnerability management workflows to your OT environment by integrating seamlessly with CMDB, orchestration, ticketing, SIEM, and related sources. 

  5. Optimize Risk Posture: To further optimize your OT vulnerability management program, it is important that organizations leverage strategic OT insights and risk recommendations to drive proactive mitigations. If desired, organizations may also extend any existing IT endpoint security solution to compatible devices in OT to further strengthen your risk posture.  

As critical infrastructure organizations continue to face new and emerging threats in the cybersecurity landscape, it is essential that they understand the challenges and best practices for successful vulnerability management. At Claorty, we understand that every OT environment is unique, and demands a tailored approach to OT vulnerability management. That’s why we continuously aim to empower customers to understand their risk posture, better allocate their existing resources to improve it and accelerate their OT security journey. This journey begins with the best practices established in this blog and can be accelerated with our vulnerability and risk management (VRM) capabilities. For more information on these capabilities, please check out our VRM solution briefs for xDome or Medigate, or simply request a demo.

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