Secure remote operations result from centralized, ongoing control over an organization’s infrastructure and operations, mitigating the weaknesses that are created as operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) converge, and workforces become increasingly dispersed. It takes a holistic approach to supporting data collection and analysis to improve operations while protecting the network from a mounting array of cyber threats.

Why Secure Remote Operations is Essential for Critical Infrastructure

Industrial enterprises have steadily converged their infrastructures, linking OT and IT systems—including Industrial Control Systems (ICS) and a growing number of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices—to increase efficiencies. By combining those systems, organizations close traditional air gaps between them to become more data-driven operations with greater control over dispersed facilities. These changes also accommodate a workforce that has become increasingly remote, particularly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bridging air gaps between systems delivers significant advantages for business operations, but it has created some glaring cybersecurity gaps and an increased attack surface. OT systems that once were separated from the internet, for example, now are connected to the rest of the enterprise. And a lot of OT runs on older operating systems and software that have gone unpatched and may no longer be supported. OT remote access creates new attack vectors and has become a prime target of attackers, many of whom have shifted to credential-based, rather than malware-based, attacks.

Threat actors, meanwhile, have increased attacks on manufacturing and industrial systems, with attackers associated with nation-states showing a heightened interest in systems involved in managing critical infrastructure. Ransomware, supply chain and other attacks have become common, and the costs of cyberattacks are steadily increasing.

The Keys to Secure Remote Operations for OT and Critical Infrastructure

In the current operating environment, securing the enterprise is inseparable from secure remote operations. A holistic, end-to-end security posture must include several essential features.

Granular Access Control. Securing an organization’s remote operations begins, naturally, with remote access control. Organizations can enforce a granular level of access control, in which administrators can establish who has access to which systems and when. They should follow the principle of least privilege, granting users only the minimum privileges they require to perform a task. With industrial systems, role-based access control (RBAC) can allow access for specific functions, and time-based access control (TBAC) limits access use to certain days or hours. These controls must be applied to all users, whether they be employees, business partners or vendors.

Zero Trust. As a key component of secure remote operations, a zero-trust strategy is essential for ensuring security in a dispersed, cloud-based computing environment. This focuses on continuously authenticating and authorizing network identities, including non-human identities such as IIoT devices, applications and ICS devices like Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. It typically requires multi-factor authentication (MFA), network segmentation and isolation of critical control systems, which can help restrict the movements of an attacker who has gained access.

Gateway Control. In a cloud-based computing environment and changeable business conditions, an organization needs to be able to scale its systems up or down as needed. Establishing a single gateway per site can enable easy scaling, granting external and third-party users access via a central point of control.

Continuous Management of Security. Maintaining the security of remote operations is an ongoing process that needs to be able to adapt to a changing threat environment as well as new business developments. Organizations need to continuously monitor users and network activity for signs of anomalous behavior or intrusions (this is also a focus of zero trust). Conducting consistent log management and analysis—including session logging and recording, and moderated visits from vendors—can help maintain secure remote operations. It’s also essential to maintain and monitor network devices and services, such as anti-virus and anti-malware software.

Establish Response Capabilities. A tenet of modern security strategies such as zero trust is to assume that attackers will get into the network, if they aren’t there already. The ultimate goal is resilience—being able to respond, recover and resume operations as quickly as possible. In addition to regular monitoring and proactive health checks on security, organizations need to establish the capabilities to troubleshoot problems remotely (enabled by secure remote connectivity), respond quickly and identify a solution before a cyberattack does significant damage.

Modernizing Secure Remote Operations with XONA

Traditional access technologies such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and Virtual Desktop Infrastructures (VDIs) weren’t built for secure remote access to critical systems, and are too complex to work with IIoT and ICS devices in a distributed environment.

XONA has a more concrete and cost-effective model for secure remote operations of physical systems that meets specific requirements when it comes to securing operational technology. With integrated multi-factor authentication, user-to-asset access controls, user session analytics, and automatic video recording, XONA is the single, secure portal that connects the cyber-physical world and enables critical operations to happen from anywhere with total confidence and trust. Its proprietary protocol isolation and zero-trust architecture eliminate common attack vectors while giving authorized users seamless and secure control of OT from any location or device.

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