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Overwhelmed by Vulnerabilities? Contextualizing OT Threats with Risk Based Vulnerability Management

February 8, 2024

Imagine a scenario at a power utility company. It’s a regular workday until the IT department receives an alert about a potential vulnerability in their Industrial Control System (ICS). They don’t know the OT environment particularly well, but the vulnerability has ‘Critical’ CVSS rating. They hand it off to the operations teams, but it’s unclear just how critical it is for this particular utility’s operations. The dilemma is immediate and pressing: patch the system and risk operational downtime, or leave it and potentially expose the grid to a cyberattack.

This is a daily reality for many in the power utility sector. Industrial Control Systems in power utilities are increasingly targeted by cyber threats. According to a report by IBM, the energy sector was the third most targeted for cyberattacks in 2020. With the growing number of Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVEs) reported each year, the task of securing ICS environments becomes daunting. For example, the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) listed over 18,000 new CVEs in 2020 alone, a number that has been steadily rising.

In the complex world of operational technology (OT) and industrial operations, the challenge is deciphering these long lists of vulnerabilities to identify which subset of those would have any meaningful impact on your operations. Managing vulnerabilities is a task that demands precision and clarity. You need to prioritize the vulnerabilities that will impact production, operations, and overall safety. But amidst an ever-growing sea of alerts and security warnings, distinguishing the critical from the trivial – enhancing the signal-to-noise ratio – has become more challenging than ever.

Beyond CVSS: Contextualizing Threats in OT

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) standards are designed to ensure the security of the power grid. The NERC CIP-010 standard calls for the management of configurations, changes, and vulnerabilities. However, the sheer volume of vulnerabilities presents a significant challenge for utilities striving to comply with these standards. The standards mandate protection of critical cyber assets, but identifying which vulnerabilities pose the most significant risk to these assets is a complex task.

Traditional approaches to patching, often attempting to address every vulnerability, are not feasible in high-stakes ICS environments. A risk-based approach, on the other hand, evaluates vulnerabilities based on the potential impact on critical operations and compliance requirements. This strategy allows for prioritizing patches that are most crucial to the security and reliability of the power grid.

Deciphering Vulnerability Impact  

Moving towards a risk-based approach in vulnerability management within Operational Technology (OT) involves integrating threat intelligence and business context to enhance basic vulnerability data and operate based on outcomes. With these additional inputs, utilities can prioritize the vulnerabilities that pose the highest risk to their operations, resulting in more efficient work and freeing up time to ensure other critical security and operational tasks are maintained sustainably.

To enhance analysis of vulnerability risk and automate prioritization, we introduced Industrial Defender Risk Signal. Tailored for the unique demands of OT and industrial environments, Risk Signal stands out by elevating the signal-to-noise ratio in vulnerability management. It goes beyond delivering lists of vulnerabilities by providing intelligent risk and priority scores, as a result of integrating threat intelligence and business context details.

In the dynamic landscape of cybersecurity threats, power utilities must navigate the delicate balance between operational efficiency and robust security measures. Adopting a risk-based approach to vulnerability management, especially in compliance with NERC CIP standards, is no longer optional but a necessity.  With Industrial Defender Risk Signal, utilities can achieve:

  • Intelligent Prioritization: By analyzing vulnerabilities in the context of actual threat intelligence and specific operational environments, attention can be focused on the vulnerabilities that matter most.
  • Minimizing Operational Disruption: The emphasis of risk-based vulnerability management is on making informed decisions that balance security needs with operational continuity. Utilities will be able to focus on actions that are essential and avoid unnecessary changes that could lead to downtime.
  • Tailored Guidance: Recognizing that no two industrial environments are the same, operators can be assured that the vulnerability analysis is based on unique operational context, ensuring that every recommended action is relevant and impactful.

To learn more about evolving vulnerability management in OT, please visit or reach out to a member of our team.