Non-technical manager’s guide to protecting energy ICS/SCADA

nuclear reactor
Greg Dunlap (CC BY 2.0)

Sophisticated cyber-attacks known as Advanced Persistent Threats (APT) are a growing challenge to the energy sector of our nation’s critical infrastructure. These attacks can largely be attributed to well-funded, dedicated nation-state actors.

APT attacks against Industrial Control Systems (ICS) and to Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems are increasing; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) cited ICS/SCADA and control system networks as one of the top two targets for hackers and viruses. These vulnerabilities begin with the human interface (13% of vulnerabilities required local access) and end with the actual Internet-facing ICS/SCADA hardware (87% of vulnerabilities are web-accessible).

There is a firm business argument that support the protection of ICS/ SCADA. Without proper safeguards in place, continued APT attacks will cause disruption, degradation, disability, and possible destruction of costly and/or irreplacible Energy Sector equipment and facilities. The economic impact to energy companies would be minor in comparison to the impact of a loss of electricity, natural gas, and petroleum throughout the United States. It is in the best interest of both Energy Sector companies and the Nation to immediately plan, fund, and effectively secure ICS/SCADA from front-to-back.

Critical Infrastructure interdependencies identified by the Department of Homeland Security

Sector Short- to medium-term dependencies or interdependencies
Chemical Chemicals necessary for natural gas operations; feedstock required for operations
Commercial facilities Power needed to run facilities
Communications Monitoring and controlling production and distribution response
Critical manufacturing Power needed to run facilities
Dams Electricity needed to power facilities may come from NG
DIB Power needed to run facilities
Emergency services Power needed to run facilities
Energy: electric power Some electric power generation relies on natural gas; electricity may be used to power NG operations
Energy: natural gas   N/A
Energy: petroleum Petroleum operations may rely on NG; petroleum products may be used to power NG operations (directly or indirectly)
Financial services Data collection systems to ensure accurate billing
Food and agriculture Power needed to run facilities
Government facilities Power needed to run facilities; provides control, regulations and standrards
Healthcare and public health Power needed to run facilities
IT ICS and other data collection software
Nuclear reactors   None
Transportation: aviation   None
Transportation: mass transit   None
Transportation: motor carrier LNG transport infrastructure
Transportation: pipeline LNG transport infrastructure
Transportation: rail LNG transport infrastructure
Transportation: maritime LNG transport infrastructure
Water Backup generation, sludge treatment, biological efficiency and collocation
→ denotes natural gas sector's dependencies
← denotes other sector dependencies on natural gas sector
↔ denotes bidirectional interdependencies

Only operating dependencies are considered; does not consider the purchase of machinery and equipment

[ ALSO:The processes and tools behind a true APT campaign: Overview ]

Controlling human factor variables

Human Machine Interfaces (HMI) are popular attack surfaces. The use of phishing, spearphishing, and other social engineering techniques continues to provide adversaries with access to administrative and ICS/SCADA systems. In spite of the best internal training programs and monitoring, an infected vendor or associated network connection can often open the gates to attackers, even within an otherwise well-protected system. An intentional insider threat is even more difficult to anticipate, identify, and often, act upon. Employees are unlikely to identify issues with colleagues for fear of litigation, embarrassment, or loss of prestige within the company.

Training is an effective tool for reducing or eliminating human-borne attacks. A dynamic program that informs, instructs, verifies, and requires written agreement of compliance should be mandatory within all Energy Sector organizations. Instructional System Design pre-tests employees and tailors the amount/level of instruction to their needs. Engaging training should not be entirely online or computer based; effective training should include live presenters, webinars, and case studies or practicum.

At the conclusion of training, a post-test should be administered. Passing the test with a high average indicates the lessons were internalized and, more importantly, demonstrates that the employee did indeed receive and understand the information. An employee who successfully passes the testing cannot at a later time claim “I didn’t know,” or claim ignorance if aware of a colleagues security failures.

ICS/SCADA systems originally were designed to operate alone, without network connection. Once networked, information is remotely requested. This human-machine communication is viewable by attackers unless precautions are taken. Secure connections, similar to the systems used in online banking, must always be established during the HMI to deny attackers visibility into network command, control and communications. VPNs are a necessity for mobile, remote communication with ICS/SCADA equipment.

Other best practices to control the HMI technical threat include the use of least-privilege accounts, two-person control for critical activities, careful control of portable media, and assigning personal passwords and accounts to superusers as opposed to a general “admin” logon in order to maintain attribution for system access and changes.

It is important not to overlook interconnected networks such as vendor organizations. Lack of access controls within a third-party company may result in unauthorized persons being granted administrative privileges. These privileges, if misused or hijacked, can be used to access the primary company and achieve control via the interconnected system (as happened to Target in 2014 via an HVAC vendor). Third-party vendors may not have the resources or motivation of the primary company.

External partners may be encouraged to enforce cyber-security by offering preferential contracts for those who comply or even by levying business restrictions against those who fail to meet energy sector standards for safe network operation.

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