Employees put critical infrastructure security at risk

Sweeping change needed to boost critical infrastructure security handcuffed by lack of cooperation between IT, grid operations workers

Critical infrastructure providers' worst security vulnerability may be their employees.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security's Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) detailed two separate incidents where IT systems connected directly to key energy industry assets were found to be infected with malware that had been deployed using infected USB drives, highlighting gaps in the organizations' basic security controls.

Over the last year, concerns about power grid infrastructure security have grown as malware such as Stuxnet and Flame highlighted vulnerabilities in important industrial controls systems (ICS) systems.

Given the sheer complexity of protecting long-embedded SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) software systems -- originally designed for use in walled environments and now exposed to the Internet -- it's not hard to understand why infrastructure providers still struggle to tighten security.

However, the largest obstacle isn't technical quandary, but the continued inability of IT security and operational management teams to partner effectively.

"It's actually pretty discouraging how little has changed, based on this lack of cohesiveness between the IT security teams and the operational staff responsible for maintaining uptime of industrial systems," said Avivah Litan, a senior security analyst with Gartner. "There's still a culture of organizational bureaucracies and territorialism, and little urgency to get things done; everyone reports to their own boss, workers are not pushed to work together and despite all the attention few CEOs or executives seem focused on the problem."

Litan said that while financial services companies responsible for keeping electronic markets online have made significant gains in solving this issue, along with telecommunications companies and some high-tech manufacturers, energy industry companies remain problematic.

"Certainly both security teams and operational workers are aware of the threat, but they're not well equipped to deal with it," said Litan. "[IT] thinks it can charge in and apply traditional policies, while the operators of these SCADA and other ICS systems are very wary of allowing anyone to make changes in their environments. Until senior management forces this cooperation to take place, there won't be major gains, and even then it will take time."

Different hats, different languages

While change has come slowly to the grid sector, security improvements are taking place, driven in part by compliance mandates such as the North American Electric Reliability Corp's Critical Infrastructure Protection program -- and fear among grid operators of additional regulations from the U.S. government.

"The market has acknowledged the need to automate the management of their heterogeneous control systems and begun large-scale projects to enhance security, compliance and change management," said Brian Ahern, CEO of Industrial Defender, which serves grid industry security needs.

[In depth: The future of SCADA-control security]

"We've already witnessed a major shift as global critical infrastructure operators respond to issues including escalating attacks, increasing SCADA system complexity and imminent regulatory evolution," Ahern said.

Despite those improvements, sweeping change has been handcuffed by the lack of cooperation between IT security and grid operations workers, says James Arlen, a senior consultant at Leviathan Security Group.

"Not only do they speak different languages, they look at things completely differently," Arlen said.

"On one hand, you have IT security who looks at some of the fundamental problems resident in ICS and SCADA systems and thinks 'we've been fixing that sort of thing for 10 years' and approaches in sort of a condescending way," he said. "On the other hand, you have operations people, many of whom have stayed in the field or even at one company for many years -- if not their entire careers -- and they are very protective of these systems, because they know that even running an AV scan could trigger a major problem or interruption."

While operational teams have begun efforts to comply with NERC CIP, the mandate covers only basic protections and is far from comprehensive, observed the expert.

Given a lack of direction from Washington lawmakers, and the resistance by grid providers to any new rules which could drive up costs and threaten productivity, Arlen said it may take years for to see measurable gains in protection.

"You'd think that energy companies could understand that if the summertime blackout of 2003 occurred in February, this is a situation that needs immediate attention, and dedicated resources, because people would have been freezing to death, or poisoning their homes with carbon monoxide," said Arlen. "But, when you talk to senior management, it's clear that they haven't thought about it too much; it's not really funny, but you could say that they're still in the dark."

Walking a mile in SCADA security shoes

Usman Sindhu, a senior research analyst with IDC Energy Insights, said the arrival of the targeted Stuxnet attacks on grid assets, combined with NERC CIP, focused attention on existing problems.

On top of that, efforts to deploy smart grid technologies have also served as a catalyst for change, the analyst said.

"As smart grid is moved further out into the public domain, issues of IT management become far more operational..." Sindhu said. "...Since security is a central issue of reliability with smart grid, and for operational workers reliability is the name of the game, all of a sudden you'll see CIOs talking more about centralizing responsibility for protection."

More frequent and open information sharing about threats against grid assets handed down to business executives by the Department of Homeland Security, among others, have also fueled the spark of change, said Andy Bochman, Energy Security and Industry Security Leader at IBM.

"Especially in electrical utilities where multiple members of the C-suite have been driven to keep an eye on risk across the entire organization, we're finally seeing some movement..., which is encouraging," said Bochman. "So even though there are both financial and operational costs to be assumed in addressing security more comprehensively, there's more support from the top down."

"The various groups still don't completely trust each other, the operational guys are still struggling with their desire to maintain stable, quiet systems and the security teams want to start running around changing things," he said. "But within the good companies they're trying to live and breath in each others' worlds to help foster an understanding and build a rapport, and that's where this cultural gap will finally be addressed."

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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