It’s not about security vs. safety – it is about security and safety

When you’ve ever been involved in discussions between IT Security people and OT (Operational Technology, everything that runs in manufacturing environments) people – the latter not only security guys – you probably observed that such discussions have a tendency of not being fruitful because they start with a fundamental misunderstanding between the two parties.

IT security people think about security first, which is essentially about protecting against cyber-attacks and internal attackers and the “CIA” – confidentiality, integrity, and availability. OT people don’t think about security first, even if they are OT security people. They first think about safety, which is about physical safety of humans and machines, which is about reliability, and about availability.

Understanding this dichotomy is essential, because there are different requirements, but also a different history in both areas. OT has always focused on safety, reliability, and availability of production environments. Physical damage of humans, but also of machines, due to software issues (such as a non-working patch) is inacceptable. Mistakes in production are inacceptable, because they can lead to massive liability issues and cost. And availability is key for manufacturing. A production line not working can cause very high cost in a very short period of time. In fact, that is where high availability is really critical, far more than for the very most of the IT systems, even the ones that are being considered as critical.

Unfortunately, the world is changing rapidly. Buzzwords such as “Industry 4.0” or “Smart Manufacturing” stand for that change – the change from an isolated to a massively connected world of manufacturing. The quintessence of these changes is that manufacturing environments become connected; and they increasingly become connected bi-directionally, unless regulations prohibit this. The golden rule to keep in mind here is simple: “Once something is connected, it is under attack.” Computer search engines that scan for everything including IoT devices (and including Industrial IoT or IIoT devices), automated attacks, advanced attacks against manufacturing environments: The risk for these connected environments is massive.

Thus, it is time to overcome the dichotomy between security and safety. We need figuring out new ways of both connecting and protecting manufacturing environments against attacks, while keeping them safe, reliable, and available. The answer to this challenge can’t be leaving everything as is. This will not work. Outdated operating systems, a lack of regular patches, a lack of fine-grain security models in OT equipment – all this will not work anymore. On the other hand, it will take years, probably even tens of years, to modernize all these environments.

Thus, we need to find a mix of new, more modern approaches that combine security by design with the specific requirements of OT environments, while protecting all the old stuff – with unidirectional firewalls, with privilege management technologies to protect shared administrative accounts, with advanced analytical tools to identify potential attacks.

However, we will only succeed when both groups, the IT and the OT people, end their culture of not understanding each other and start working on joint initiatives – and that must start by defining a common understanding of the vocabulary, but also understanding that the requirements of both groups are not only valid but mandatory. Let’s start working together.


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