The 2021 State of Industrial Cybersecurity: The Risks Created by the Cultural Divide between the IT & OT Teams

A primary challenge to improving the security of organizations’ Industrial Control System (ICS) and Operational Technology (OT) environments, as revealed in this research, is the need to overcome the cultural and technical differences between OT and IT teams. Ideally, organizations should work toward establishing a unified IT and OT approach to addressing the threats and closing the gaps in security that leave organizations vulnerable to cyber attackers. Sponsored by Dragos, Ponemon Institute surveyed 603 IT, IT security and OT security practitioners at the C-level, managerial and director level in the United States. All are familiar with cybersecurity initiatives and ICS and OT security practices within their organizations.

In the context of this research, OT represents the programmable systems or devices that interact with the physical environment (or manage devices that interact with the physical environment). Examples include industrial control systems (ICS), building management systems, safety control systems, and physical access control mechanisms.

ICS encompasses several types of control systems, including supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, distributed control systems (DCS), and other control system components such as programmable logic controllers (PLC) often found in the industrial sectors and critical infrastructures. An ICS consists of combinations of control components that act together to achieve an industrial objective.

The cultural divide between IT and OT teams affects the ability to secure both the IT and the ICS/OT environment. Because of the lack of alignment between an organization’s cybersecurity policies and procedures with OT and ICS security objectives, only 35 percent of respondents say their IT and OT teams have a unified security strategy that secures both the IT and OT environments, despite the need for different controls and priorities. Only 39 percent of respondents say IT and OT teams work cohesively to achieve a mature security posture in both the IT and OT environments.

The risks created by the cultural divide between the IT & OT Teams 

  • Fifty percent of respondents are optimistic about the future of their ICS/OT cybersecurity program. However, only 21 percent of respondents say their ICS/OT program activities have achieved full maturity and emerging threats drive priority actions. A fully mature program also means C-level executives and the board of directors are regularly informed about the efficiency, effectiveness, and security of the program. Twenty-nine percent of respondents say their organizations are in the late-middle stage which means C-level support, adequate budget, risk assessment and a cross-functional team of IT and OT SMEs work together cohesively. 
  • As the frequency and severity of attacks increase, organizations are struggling to keep ahead of these threats. Sixty-three percent of respondents say their organizations had an ICS/OT cybersecurity incident in the past two years. 
  • For the first time, this research calculates the cost of one cybersecurity incident in the ICS/OT environment. The average cost per cybersecurity incident research is $2,989,550 (the calculation is shown in Table 1 of this report). An average of 316 days is spent to detect, investigate and remediate the cybersecurity incident. Based on the use of a threat hunting and incident response team that averages six IT and IT security personnel, it costs an average of $963,168 to detect, investigate and remediate the incident. The fixed costs including the replacement of equipment, downtime, legal and regulatory fines total $2,026,382. This equals the average total cost of $2,989,550. 
  • The majority of respondents say senior management lacks an understanding about the cyber risks in the ICS/OT environments. As a result, not enough resources are allocated to defend the ICS/OT environments. Paradoxically, according to 56 percent of respondents, the primary blocker for investing in ICS/OT cybersecurity is that ICS/OT cybersecurity is managed by the engineering department, which does not have security expertise followed by 53 percent of respondents who say ICS/OT security is managed by an IT department without engineering expertise. 
  • The Director/Manager of IT and the VP of Engineering are the functions most respondents in this study report to. However, by far the VP of Engineering is most accountable for the security of the ICS/OT program. Only 12 percent of respondents say the CISO is most accountable for the security of ICS/OT program. Further, only 35 percent of respondents say someone responsible for ICS and OT cybersecurity reports IT and cybersecurity initiatives to the board of directors. Of these respondents, 41 percent say such reporting takes place only when a security incident occur.
  • Only 38 percent of respondents say the security safeguards in place to protect the ICS and OT environments are covered during board meetings and only 36 percent of respondents say the effectiveness and efficiency of security programs and measures are presented.
  • Cultural and technical differences must be overcome to have OT and IT teams work cohesively. The challenges often are not caused by a competition for budget dollars and new security projects (only 32 percent of respondents). Rather, it is the cultural and technical differences between traditional IT-specific best practices and what is possible in OT environments, such as patch management and unique requirements of industrial automation equipment vendors that cause conflicts between these two functions (50 percent and 44 percent of respondents, respectively).
  • Only 46 percent of respondents say their organizations are effective in gathering intelligence about threats to the ICS/OT environment and 45 percent of respondents say their organizations are effective in discovering and maintaining an inventory of all devices attached anywhere on the OT network throughout the asset lifecycle.

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