DevOps and Operational Technology: a security perspective

I have worked in the Operational Technology (OT) environment for years, predominantly in major Oil and Gas companies. And yes, we all know that this space can move quite slowly! Companies traditionally employ a waterfall model while managing projects with rigid stage gates, extensive planning and design phases followed by lengthy implementation or development.

It’s historically been difficult to adopt more agile approaches in such an environment for various reasons. For example, I’ve developed architecture blueprints with a view to refresh industrial control assets for a gas and electricity distribution network provider in the UK on a timeline of 7 years. It felt very much like a construction project to me.  Which is quite different from the software development culture that typically is all about experimenting and failing fast. I’m not sure about you, but I would not like our power grid to fail fast in the name of agility. The difference in culture is justified: we need to prioritise safety and rigour when it comes to industrial control systems, as the impact of a potential mistake can cost more than a few days’ worth of development effort – it can be human life.

The stakes are not as high when we talk about software development.  I’ve spent the past several months in one of the biggest dot-coms in Europe and it was interesting to compare and contrast their agile approach to the more traditional OT space I’ve spent most of my career in. These two worlds can’t be more different.

I arrived to a surprising conclusion though: they are both slow when it comes to security. But  for different reasons.

Agile, and Scrum in particular, is great on paper but it’s quite challenging when it comes to security.

Agile works well when small teams are focused on developing products but I found it quite hard to introduce security culture in such an environment. Security often is just not a priority for them.

Teams mostly focus on what they perceive as a business priority. It is a standard practice there to define OKRs – Objectives and Key Results. The teams are then measured on how well they achieved those. So say if they’ve met 70% of their OKRs, they had a good quarter. Guess what – security always ends up in the other bottom 30% and security-related backlog items get de-prioritised.

DevOps works well for product improvement, but it can be quite bad for security. For instance, when a new API or a new security process is introduced, it has to touch a lot of teams which can be a stakeholder management nightmare in such an environment. A security product has to be shoe horned across multiple DevOps teams, where every team has its own set of OKRs, resulting in natural resistance to collaborate.

In a way, both OT and DevOps move slowly when it comes to security. But what do you do about it?

The answer might lie in setting the tone from the top and making sure that everyone is responsible for security, which I’ve discussed in a series of articles on security culture on this blog and in my book The Psychology of Information Security.

How about running your security team like a DevOps team? When it comes to Agile, minimising the friction for developers is the name of the game: incorporate your security checks in the deployment process, do some automated vulnerability scans, implement continuous control monitoring, describe your security controls in the way developers understand (e.g. user stories) and so on.

Most importantly, gather and analyse data to improve. Where is security failing? Where is it clashing with the business process? What does the business actually need here? Is security helping or impeding? Answering these questions is the first step to understanding where security can add value to the business regardless of the environment: Agile or OT.

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