24 août 2020

How to deal with critical information beyond the control room: IT and OT integration and security

EXAMEN FUTUR 4 min de lecture

To achieve complete situational awareness, control rooms today increasingly rely on a mix of information coming from Operational Technology (OT) and other IT systems. Keeping the two information systems safe while using them to their most effect is the challenge for control rooms for years to come.

Control rooms used to be all about monitoring Operational Technology (OT). OT information makes up the building blocks of critical systems that are at the heart of our national infrastructures and that guarantee the quality of life, including the supply of water, energy, mobility, security and many more. Essentially, OT is the hardware and software that keeps our infrastructure (factories, power plants, facility equipment etc.) running. Think of SCADA systems, PLCs, embedded computing, or other industrial hardware.

Traditionally, OT systems have always been moated information systems, completely separated from other IT systems and the internet. As a result, OT has always been relatively manageable in terms of (cyber)security, but it was harder for users to obtain complete situational awareness over both IT and OT sources.

OT and IT together make situational awareness complete

However today, the situation has become more complex. Digital transformation programs have encouraged organizations to continuously exchange IT and OT data. Due to the rise of the Industrial Internet of Things OT have started to use IT networks for communication, and consequently, the border between IT and OT is getting increasingly blurred.

The common operational picture of many control rooms today reflects this reality. To obtain complete situational awareness, OT sources are commonly mixed with other content sources, such as weather information, social media, and news sources.

New cyber security threats

The new way of working has forced organizations to revise the way their control rooms are approaching information security. Cyber-attacks to IT networks risk to overflow to OT, giving cyber attackers new opportunities to do harm. In a 2018 report by Kaspersky Lab, a global cybersecurity company, 32% of the industrial companies surveyed believed it very likely to be a target of cyber-attacks, while 66% of the companies said targeted attacks were a major concern.

While cyber-attacks on IT systems have traditionally been about stealing or altering sensitive company data, cyber-attacks on OT systems are aimed at destroying or bringing down the availability of critical infrastructure systems. Recent examples, like the Triton attacks on an energy plant in Saudi Arabia, show that these attacks are no science fiction.

Getting OT out of the control room

Changing control room environments and evolving workflows are making the IT – OT puzzle even more complex. With the recent worldwide social distancing measures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, many control room operators have been forced to work from home and perform their typical control room duties from a home-based IT network. As a result, OT information needed to be made available somehow outside of the control room. Secure interaction between IT and OT had become even more critical.

Although COVID-19 has been a strong catalyst of digital transformation, it has only accelerated what was already going on in control rooms for many years. In order to enhance productivity, organizations want to give their key decision makers access to critical information at all times. Information needs to be able to travel from operators to experts at any time, not just when those experts are present in the control room.

Remote access to information used to be mainly a privilege of field workers, patrol vehicles, first responders and the likes. What has changed today, is that the tasks that were typically performed in the confined space of the control room, are now expected to be performed outside of the control room as well.

Wherever they are, control room operators and decision-makers want their IT and OT information to be exchanged securely, but also swiftly. Today’s digital worker already has high expectations about the speed and performance of digital information exchange and streaming. Just think of the buzz Netflix created when the company announced its temporary video quality reduction in March 2020. The reality is that the expectations people have as consumers now transfer to the world of OT and control rooms, especially with younger generations of control room workers who are now finding their way in, to succeed a retiring workforce.

Securely sharing content beyond the control room

Taking into account the expectations of today’s control room workforce, how do you share control room content securely and swiftly with field staff and remote experts? Barco recently formulated an innovative answer to that question. With its latest secure media streaming solution called SecureStream, Barco has managed to make streaming content outside the control room both secure and user-friendly.

The crucial element of SecureStream is the way this solution shares information. Instead of streaming the actual control room data, SecureStream shares a video stream containing the necessary information. This means that the outside users don’t have access to the data itself. In other words, only pixels are shared, not data. This makes it impossible for cyber criminals to gain access to the secure network and it is possible to provide regulated access to approved users only. The video stream itself is extremely performant, providing high resolution images on which all details are clearly visible.

SecureStream uses both on-premise and cloud technology to stream content to remote control room workers. This hybrid on-premise and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) configuration helps to lower the risk of intrusion on the enterprise network, maximizing security.

As an additional isolation layer, highly secured sites can opt to install a network isolator (video diode) between the OT network and the streaming device, further isolating the OT network away from the IT network while only allowing video signals to pass through unidirectionally outwards.

Interested how SecureStream might work for your control room? Find out here.