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Blog / 5 min read

Identifying Risks in Third-Party OT Remote Access

Pallavi Singh
/ December 16th, 2023
Third-Party Remote Access in OT: Security & Operational Risks

In the ever-evolving landscape of industrial technology, the convergence of Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) has become the reality for organizations looking to defend their critical infrastructure This convergence, while unlocking new efficiencies and capabilities, also presents significant challenges, particularly when it comes to remote access by third parties and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). These vendors often rely on IT-centric remote access tools which introduce significant security and operational risks. With the increase in cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, a pressing question arises: How secure is your OT environment when third-party vendors manage their own remote access? 

What are Third-Party Remote Access Risks? 

Third-party remote access in OT environments encompasses risks like cybersecurity vulnerabilities, inconsistent security practices, operational disruptions, compliance issues, and the challenge of maintaining visibility and control. These risks stem from external vendors employing IT-centric tools that are ill-suited for the specific demands of OT systems, potentially leading to increased vulnerabilities and disruptions in critical infrastructure operations.

This blog explores the security and operational risks of third-party remote access, highlighting the need for strategic reassessment of remote access controls in OT environments.

Understanding the Security Implications of Third-Party OT Remote Access 

Traditionally, OT systems operated in isolation, shielded from the cyber threats that plagued IT networks. This paradigm shift, integrating IT solutions into OT, brings forth challenges unforeseen in the legacy era. The core risk lies in the application of IT remote access solutions in an OT context. These solutions, while robust in IT environments, often disregard the nuanced demands and sensitivity of OT systems.

Let's dive deeper into the security challenges and risks:

  • Breaking the Purdue Model: Using standard IT solutions, like VPNs, extends internet connectivity to lower levels of the OT network, making critical OT assets vulnerable to cyber attacks.

  • Inadequate access control implementation: Traditional IT solutions often fail to implement role-based access controls effectively and enforce access policies, jeopardizing the security of OT systems. 

  • Poor password hygiene among third-party users: A lack of strict password hygiene requirements leaves OT systems susceptible to malware attacks and system failures, particularly with third parties involved.

  • Limited control over third-party access and file transfers: The challenge in managing access and file transfers to unsecured OT devices poses risks of unauthorized activities and operational data theft.

  • Lack of real-time visibility: Traditional IT solutions lack the capability to provide real-time visibility or video recording for monitoring third-party user activities, leading to potential security incidents. 

Each of these challenges can lead to a range of implications, including operational disruptions, reputation damage, noncompliance issues, unauthorized access, safety hazards, and an increased risk of cyber threats. These cumulative risks underscore the importance of reassessing and enhancing remote access controls in OT environments for better security and operational efficiency. 

Operational Implications of Third-Party Remote Access Risks

Due to the critical nature of industrial environments, the operational impacts of poorly managed third-party access can be as severe as the cybersecurity threats. Balancing necessary access for maintenance or troubleshooting with stringent security protocols is crucial.

Here are some operational challenges & risks in third-party OT remote access:

  • Complex on-demand access procedures

On-demand remote access requests necessitate intricate training and onboarding for remote users to access OT networks. This can lead to access delays, heightened risk of human error and miscommunication, increased Mean Time to Repair (MTTR), and potential operational disruptions due to third-party involvement.

  • Diverse remote access technologies

Third-party users often employ a variety of unmanaged devices with different remote access technologies. This diversity creates compatibility and infrastructure challenges for OT systems, potentially leading to system failures, downtime, equipment damage, inflated costs, resource constraints, network bottlenecks, non-compliance penalties, and harm to the organization's reputation.

  • Challenges in tool management and monitoring

Managing disparate tools and effectively monitoring third-party user activities within the OT network is challenging. Inefficiencies in monitoring lead to increased errors, misconfigurations, difficulties in tracking user activities, delays in operational anomaly detection, and a lack of accountability for third-party users.

  • Communication barriers in access coordination

Effective communication among plant administrators, managers, and third-party users during OT network access and access termination poses significant challenges. Communication barriers can result in miscommunications, collaboration inefficiencies, issue resolution delays, lack of real-time communication, and potential conflicts.

Embracing OT-specific Solutions for Enhanced Security and Efficiency

The risks posed by using IT-centric solutions for third-party OT remote access highlight the need for a strategic shift towards OT-specific solutions. These solutions should address OT systems' unique operational and security needs to ensure safe and efficient third-party remote access. As OT systems remain critical to infrastructure, adopting tailored remote access solutions is essential for mitigating risks and ensuring operational continuity.

Take action: Secure your OT environment

To combat the security and operational risks of third-party remote access, it's crucial to be informed and prepared. We have compiled a comprehensive white paper that outlines best practices, actionable strategies and how Claroty Secure Remote Access (SRA) can assist you in safeguarding your OT environment against third-party risks. This resource provides a roadmap for strengthening your defenses and ensuring that your critical operations remain uninterrupted and secure.

Download our "Optimizing OT Remote Access for Third-Party Vendors with Claroty Secure Remote Access (SRA)" white paper, and start managing cyber risk in your industrial environment.

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