Protecting Vital Infrastructure: Understanding and Minimizing Cyber Threats to Nordic OT Systems

Industry 4.0 is gaining momentum in the Nordic and wider EU area, with deepening Operational Technology (OT)- integration providing remarkable efficiency and significant cybersecurity risks.

“From 2024 to 2029, the Nordics Cybersecurity Market is projected to expand from an initial valuation of $12.70B to $19.06B, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.46%. Cyberattacks targeting certain end-user sectors are a key factor propelling the cybersecurity industry in the Nordic region.”

This piece examines the state of operational technology cyber threats, looking closely at the complex dangers that critical infrastructure sectors confront and the extensive measures needed to minimize these risks.

Understanding the Complex OT Cyber Landscape

Critical infrastructure relies on OT, which is experiencing a digital revolution. In a world where connection is the rule rather than the exception, organizations now face the challenging task of strengthening their systems to withstand the complex cyber dangers posed by the convergence of IT and OT.

An estimate by Checkpoint indicates that by the end of 2024, the average number of attacks each week in the industrial sector will have risen by 41%, stressing the importance of securing and ensuring a resilient ecosystem across your IT/OT. Energy, transportation, healthcare, and manufacturing are just four of the critical infrastructure industries that rely significantly on OT to function efficiently in today’s fast-paced digital world. Before continuing, some important things to remember are as follows:

  • For the sake of dependability, OT systems are used to function in isolation from other networks. However, this has been transformed by the transition towards Industry 4.0, defined by enhanced connection, data interchange, and automation
  • With the help of IT and OT working together, we can now analyze data in real time, perform predictive maintenance, and have better control over our operations than ever before 
  • This interconnectedness comes with a vast amount of cybersecurity issues. The attack surface grows in proportion to the number of networked OT systems, giving hackers greater chances to exploit security holes and interrupt essential services; and
  • Cyber hazards in the OT domain are complex and diverse, including anything from common malware to highly tailored assaults. In their pursuit of OT system breaches, threat actors employ various tactics, including those associated with state-sponsored agencies and cybercriminal organizations. 

According to a report from SC Media, ransomware affects 56% of all enterprises with revenues between $10-50 million and 72% of corporations with annual revenues above $5 billion, many of which heavily leverage OT systems (SC Media). Common channels used to enter an organization’s network include weaknesses in the supply chain, vulnerabilities in legacy systems (which we see a lot of on factory floors), and lack of employee training and awareness. The projection indicates an upward trend, given the profitable nature of this business for malicious actors.

Organizations should take a comprehensive approach to cybersecurity to understand this intricate OT cyber ecosystem. It entails thoroughly handling the linkages and interdependencies between IT and OT and safeguarding specific parts of the OT ecosystem. This calls for an in-depth comprehension of the traits of OT settings, where dependability, security, and responsiveness in real-time are of significant importance.

The Emergence of Advanced Cyber Dangers

“The predicted yearly damage costs from cybercrime are projected to reach $10.5 trillion USD by 2025, an increase of 15% from the current level (Forbes).”

One side effect of OT system digitalization is the rise in the sophistication of cyber threats. A recurring concern stems from sophisticated tactics used by state-sponsored actors and cybercriminal organizations to exploit weaknesses in critical infrastructure. A Waterfall Security’s Report also predicts a potential shutdown of 15,000 industrial sites due to cyberattacks by 2027. The complexity and fluidity of these dangers call for an all-encompassing defense plan. 

“According to Cybersecurity Ventures, the necessity for improved cybersecurity measures will be further highlighted by the fact that the expected yearly expenses of cybercrime will reach $10.5 trillion by 2025.”

Data Privacy Concerns in OT Operations

Processing large volumes of sensitive data is not uncommon in OT’s widespread use. Protecting this information from prying eyes is a major hurdle. Such data can include operational parameters, configurations and at times personally identifiable information (PII) of both customers and employees.

It is of utmost importance for enterprises to find a way to drive innovation via OT while also protecting privacy. Organizations are compelled to embrace privacy-by-design principles due to the additional complexity imposed by regulations such as the GDPR in the EU. A combination of encryption, data minimization and access controls can go a very long way here.

Addressing Vulnerabilities in OT Systems

Due to their inherent complexity and rapid evolution, OT systems are far from immune against security flaws. To ensure that OT systems can withstand cyber attacks, it is necessary to work on finding and fixing these vulnerabilities quickly and continuously. Preventative patch and vulnerability management strategies must include continual monitoring, threat detection, and frequent penetration testing. 

Default credentials should be changed as soon as possible, and appropriate network segmentation should be implemented for your OT environment. VLANs, firewalls, air-gapping, VPNs and other technologies can be employed to address some of the common vulnerabilities found in OT systems.

Utilization of AI for Sophisticated Attack Strategies

Previously, teams of many were required by OT / IoT hackers to develop malware payloads intended for installation, after infiltrating a system. This used to be a more challenging task due to the complexity and obscurity of most OT systems, in comparison to more common devices such as your mobile phone, work laptop and so on. However, with the recent emergence of AI capable of coding, threat-actors can now articulate their requirements in simple terms, and wait for AI to quickly generate the necessary code – primed for an attack. Even ChatGPT is capable of generating malware strings if prompted correctly.

Effectively Complying with Existing and Upcoming Regulations

Strong regulatory frameworks are necessary due to the ever-changing nature of the OT and cybersecurity nexus. Businesses in the Nordic nations and the European Union face a vast amount of cybersecurity requirements they must learn and adhere to. Aligning OT procedures with established security measures requires achieving compliance. To achieve this goal, one must construct a solid governance structure, regularly evaluate compliance, and keep up with the ever-changing requirements. The NIS2 and CER Directives are two regulations to keep an eye out for for critical and essential entities. For more information whether your organization fits within this scope, you can refer to this article.

IEC 62443 also outlines specific cybersecurity requirements for industrial automation and control systems, which includes OT systems, whilst the upcoming EU Cyber Resilience Act (CRA) sets out cybersecurity requirements for products with digital elements placed on the EU market.

Dealing with the Skills Gap and Capacity Building

Businesses require staff that can keep up with the fast-paced innovation of OT and ensure appropriate cybersecurity protections are in place. To strengthen defenses against cyber attacks, organizations should develop skills either in-house or externally, as the scarcity of skilled people within this sector is a growing concern. 

Investments in specialized training and certification programs are recommended, given the broad nature of OT cybersecurity, including knowledge of industrial control systems (ICS), Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) and much more.

To close this gap, businesses must provide continuous training programs and find ways to retain their best employees.

Strategies for Mitigation: Recommended Best Practices

We are seeing businesses in the EU are implementing stringent new security measures to protect their vital infrastructure from the dynamic threats posed by the digitization of OT. Some of these strategies include the following:

  • Prioritizing Security in OT Development from the Start: Businesses increasingly realize they need to include security in OT from the ground up. A strong basis for cyber resilience is provided when security concerns are part of the earliest design and coding processes. The Secure Software Development Lifecycle (S-SDLC) should be leveraged where appropriate in every phase of the OT software development lifecycle – starting from requirements gathering and design through to actual deployment and testing. Some common vulnerabilities can be mitigated through proper error handling, secure coding practices and input validation. An add-on to this (or sometimes done simultaneously) is conducting threat modeling exercises to identify potential security threats and vulnerabilities. Analyzing the architecture, flows of data and any attack vectors will allow you to proactively design security controls and countermeasures.
  • Align Security Efforts with Operational Resilience: We must recognize that security is not solely about preventing cyber threats but also about maintaining operational continuity and resilience in the face of disruptions. Your Security Strategy, Policies and procedural documentation needs to extend past just the legacy systems, but also encompass your OT environment, IoT (including industrial IoT, medical IoT, agriculture IoT, transport, etc.,) as well as IT, under the same governance umbrella.
  • Continuous Monitoring of OT Systems: Real-time monitoring tools are being implemented to ensure continuous monitoring of OT systems. This foresight helps identify possible cyber risks and respond quickly, reducing the effect of security events. A full picture of the security posture can be obtained by continuous monitoring, including identifying anomalies, log evaluation, and emergency response capability. A Gartner report estimates that ‘by 2027, 75% of security teams will have on-boarded at least five tools to manage IoT security’ – a significant improvement to what we see today.
  • Collaboration Between Cybersecurity Experts and OT Developers: It’s critical to foster collaboration between cybersecurity experts and OT developers, a synergy which is important for securing your organization’s OT / IoT environments. Through the design and implementation of solutions that integrate insights into cyber threats and OT intricacies – organizations can greatly improve their cybersecurity posture. The partnership between the two teams goes above just technological integration, but includes shared risk assessments, aligned incident response simulations, and ongoing knowledge sharing.
  • Ongoing Evaluations and Audits of Security: Regularly auditing and assessing OT systems for security is rapidly becoming the norm. To keep cyber resilience at a high level, it is necessary to conduct these evaluations promptly, ensuring that gaps and vulnerabilities can be identified and mitigated in a timely manner. Stress tests, vulnerability scans, and inspections for compliance are all part of a comprehensive audit program that aims to provide the whole security landscape. Systems which control the technical and physical processes, such as the PLCs, DCS and SCADA systems can not be omitted from these evaluations. The IEC 62443 suite of standards provides a great starting point for what to include in your assessments, and the NIS2 Directive (should your organization be classed as ‘essential’ or ‘important’ under their guidelines) is another regulation that must be considered for cybersecurity compliance. Refer to the Effectively Complying with Existing and Upcoming Regulations paragraph above for more regulations to look out for, for strategic compliance.

How We Can Support

As the landscape of Operational Technology (OT) cyber hazards continue to change, our firm is here to support you as a strategic partner. We provide various services to tackle the unique cyber dangers in the Nordic region and the wider European Union. Comprehensive cybersecurity assessments, third-party risk management, and assistance with complicated regulatory requirements are all ways we can keep your business secure from cybercriminals.

We are leaders in digital identity security, zero trust architectures, and thorough cyber resilience strategies. Whatever the challenge, we are committed to securing your company’s cybersecurity ecosystem and helping you navigate the complex landscape of operational technology risks.