Mining in the 21st century is increasingly connected, taking advantage of multiple innovative technologies. However, with the increased use of suites of information technologies and associated technologies, there are several concerns with cybersecurity, data integrity, and data loss. This article will explore the need for companies to protect their operational technology networks.
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The Modern, Connected and Innovative Mining Ecosystem
Mining is a key economic activity in nearly every country on earth. In an ancient industry, technological advances have improved mining projects' efficiency, safety, and economic viability over several centuries.
Today’s mining industry must meet the challenges of the 21st century as resources dwindle and the industry seeks to mitigate its environmental and social impacts. Several innovative technologies have become a more integral to mining operations worldwide, such as the Internet of Things, smart sensors, Big Data paradigms, AI, machine learning, augmented reality, and autonomous drones and vehicles.
Operational Technology Networks
Many people are familiar with information technology, but there is less widespread operational technology knowledge. Operational technology (OT) is a category of communication and software systems that manages, controls, and monitors industrial operations. This technological field focuses on physical devices and processes.
Operational technologies existed long before the advent of information technology, although the term is relatively recent. The origins of the field can be found in the first uses of electricity to power industrial equipment and processes in factories, utilities, mines, and transportation systems.
Modern operational technologies include machinery, plant equipment, monitoring and control systems, embedded computer technologies, SCADA software, remote industrial software and hardware, RTUs, and HMIs.
In the modern mining industry, there has been intense talk about the convergence of information technology and operational technology. This is widely referred to as IT/OT convergence. While there are still multiple examples of conventional, non-integrated operational technologies, the trend is overwhelmingly toward a streamlined system of mining operations utilizing several innovative technologies.
Integrating IT and OT technologies provides mining companies with benefits such as cost savings, operational efficiency enhancements, and savings on resources. Modern online platforms have aided this convergence, helping project managers optimize workflow, resource management, and cost efficiency.
Types of information technology that are becoming increasingly more integrated with operational technologies include cloud computing, SQL, communication technologies, software, hardware, Java, Python, and various machine learning technologies and algorithms.
However, while this IT/OT convergence provides significant benefits for mining companies, there are critical data security and network integrity issues. Downtime can significantly impact the operational costs of mines.
Network Security: A Key Concern
Mining companies are overwhelmingly concerned with the security of proprietary information concerning resources, finance, and operations. Mining is also an incredibly competitive business, and multiple bad actors may look for backdoors and exploits which can be utilized to gain access to a project’s data.
If they can infiltrate a mine’s operational network, hackers can steal operational data or even take control of a mine’s equipment, causing critical safety issues and economic loss for companies.
All elements of the operational technology network can be vulnerable to cyberattacks, especially if network security is lax. Protecting operations and data should be of paramount importance to mining companies.
The focus of mining companies on network cybersecurity is evidenced by the significant funds spent on this area in recent years, with total global mining cybersecurity revenues projected to rise to $2.5 billion by 2025. Unfortunately, the lower security maturity in the mining industry compared to the corporate sector means cyberattacks are an ever-present concern worldwide.
Identity Management Approaches
Sophisticated cyberattacks can exploit several flaws in operational networks, with one of the most common vulnerabilities being bad password and identity management systems.
Improved password management, multi-factor authentication, biometric identification, and privileged access levels can help enhance cybersecurity and reduce the possibilities for hackers to take over a mine’s operational systems.
Aside from ensuring that a network has robust identity management systems, companies should regularly update their operating systems and operational technology networks and pay attention to legacy systems, which require regular patches to outdated, at-risk elements. Mining companies should leverage the expertise of external cybersecurity companies.
Monitoring Operational Technology Networks
Ensuring network security and protecting operational technology networks from bad actors requires constant monitoring of critical network vulnerabilities. Several cybersecurity companies have focused on solutions for the mining industry, recognizing the crucial need for protecting operational technology networks.
One innovative approach from Darktrace is self-learning artificial intelligence which can stay ahead of the latest cybersecurity-related threats. Their system monitors regular business activity, detecting any network pattern changes which can identify threats in their early stages, limiting or preventing them.
Nozomi Networks is another company working in this sector. Their automated threat detection software monitors operational technology and IoT networks for anomalous activity. The success of various companies working in the cybersecurity sphere has demonstrated the need for robust operational technology networks for mining companies.
Operational security is vital for mining companies to protect workers, assets, and finances. As the industry becomes more interconnected, there is a need for robust monitoring, identity management, and for companies to regularly identify any vulnerabilities and patch them to prevent cyberattacks. Protecting operational technology networks should be a central concern for every mining company in the 21st century.
References and Further Reading
Mine Australia (2022) How can mining companies protect their operational technology networks? [online] mine.nridigital.com. Available at: https://mine.nridigital.com/mine_australia_jul22/ar_health_and_safety
Commit.works (2022) Merging IT and Operational Technology in the Mining Industry [online] commit.works. Available at: https://www.commit.works/mining-solutions/
I-Scoop (2022) Operational technology (OT) – definitions and differences with IT [online] i-scoop.eu. Available at: https://www.i-scoop.eu/industry-4-0/operational-technology-ot/