Cybersecurity Dictionary: Industrial Control Systems (ICS) Security

April 24, 2023
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An Industrial Control System (ICS) is the combination of hardware, software and networks that keep a manufacturing business running. Safeguarding the connection points between these different elements is a cybersecurity challenge. Learn about the common methods of attacking an ICS and how to prevent them with an ICS cybersecurity strategy.

Like many other cybersecurity topics we’ve covered here at Claroty, the term “industrial control systems'' (ICS) can at times prove difficult to define. Today, we’re here to break down the meaning of industrial control systems and provide you with the tools you need to protect your critical ICS from cyberattacks. With the right cybersecurity strategy, your organization can paint a clearer picture of the risks associated with ICS and can quickly and efficiently protect against and remediate those risks.

What is an Industrial Control System?

Industrial control systems can be defined as a collection of hardware and software systems, networks, and controls that are designed to monitor, control, operate, and/or automate industrial processes. These systems are present in various different critical infrastructure industries including chemical, electric, oil & gas, manufacturing, transportation and more. ICS are typically made up of a variety of components such as sensors, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), human-machine interfaces (HMIs), and communication networks. These components work together to monitor and control various operational technology (OT) systems, such as temperature, pressure, flow rate, and other variables.

Industrial control systems are considered to be critical in industrial operations due to the fact that their operations are often used to ensure safety and efficiency. ICS are used to monitor and control several safety-critical systems including emergency shutdown systems, fire detection and suppression systems, and toxic gas detection systems. These systems are designed to protect workers and equipment from hazards that may arise during industrial processes, and, if not properly protected from cyberattacks, can result in fatal catastrophes.

What is the Difference Between ICS and OT?

Now that we know the definition of industrial control systems, it is important to understand how they both relate to and differ from operational technology (OT). Although the terms are at times used interchangeably, ICS is a major subset within the OT sector and comprises systems used to monitor and control industrial processes. These systems typically use specialized protocols and hardware designed specifically for industrial environments. OT on the other hand is a much larger umbrella term that encompasses all of the hardware and software used to manage and control industrial processes, including ICS. Outside of ICS, OT includes things like supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, distributed control systems (DCS), and other technologies that are used to manage and monitor industrial processes. These are typically designed to be reliable, secure, and resilient, and often require specialized expertise to implement and maintain. Essentially, all ICS can be categorized as a form of OT, but not all OT can be considered ICS.

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