Protecting ICSs from Electronic Threats, II

ICS Security Is a Lifecycle Process that Begins With Conceptual Design of a System and Continues Through to Its Retirement

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By Joe WEISS, PE, CISM, Applied Control

The following is the second section of a three-part Security Spotlight series that consists of portions of Joe Weiss' Protecting Industrial Control Systems from Electronic Threats, Momentum Press, 2010. Part 1 ran in the June issue of Control, and Part 3 will run in the October issue. In industrial control systems (ICS), cyber attacks tend to focus on destabilizing assets. Because integrity and availability are most important for ICSs, their security also relies more on authentication and message integrity.

Fortunately, IC security is an engineering problem that requires engineering solutions. Resilience and robustness are the critical factors in the survivability of compromised ICSs. Their security requires a balanced approach to technology design, product development and testing, development and application of appropriate ICS policies and procedures, analysis of intentional and unintentional security threats, and proactive management of communications across view, command and control, monitoring and safety. It's a lifecycle process that begins with the conceptual design of a system and continues through to its retirement.

Threats and Myths

To begin dealing with cyber threats to ICSs, it's useful to break them out in four main ways:

  • Insider intentional threats—usually by disgruntled employees, vendors, system integrators or anyone else with internal knowledge or access to the ICS.
  • Internal unintentional threats—from inappropriate system designs, policies, architectures procedures, technologies or testing.
  • External non-targeted threats—due to maliciously designed software viruses and worms.
  • Malicious actors—that includes hackers, criminals and nation-states.

Besides these threats, there are many misconceptions about cybersecurity that can impact ICSs and their users. These myths include:

  • "The Internet and Microsoft Windows are the biggest cyber threats." Many cyber incidents didn't involve either.
  • "Using Windows and TCP/IP Makes it IT." Distinctions between IT and ICSs are blurring.
  • "External malicious threats are always the biggest concerns." Less than 25% of 170 cyber incidents were due to external threats.
  • "Firewalls make you secure." They're only speed bumps to knowledgeable hackers.
  • "Virtual private networks (VPNs) and encryption make you secure." VPNs can send compromised data too.
  • "Intrusion detection systems (IDSs) will identify control system attacks." New attack signatures are constantly being identified.
  • "Field devices can't be hacked." Some have already been hacked.
  • "You're secure if hackers can't get in." Many cyber incidents have originated internally.
  • "More and better widgets can solve our security problems." Security policies must be instilled in people or the devices will be useless. 
  • "You can air-gap control systems." Communications technologies make many ICSs almost impossible to air-gap.
  • "IT cybersecurity policies apply to ICSs." But they often don't address unique ICS issues.
  • "Each industry requires a different approach." From an ICS security perspective, instrument and controls vendors supply common hardware with standard software.
  • "If we keep our heads down they won't find us." SCADA and ICS security are common terms at hacker meetings and websites.
  • "ICS cybersecurity is a North American electric issue." ICSs supplied to all process industries worldwide are pretty much the same. 
  • "North American Electric Reliability Corp.'s (NERC) Common Industrial Protocols (CIPs) reduce cyber exposure." NERC CIPs have many exclusions, and even meeting them wouldn't have prevented many cyber incidents.
  • "NERC CIPs are being employed uniformly." NERC CIPs allow so much flexibilty by utilities that they don't have common asset definitions.
  • "Control system cyber forensics exist." Windows-based HMIs have cyber forensics, but legacy field devices have very little.
  • "Control system audit metrics exist." There are no audit metrics specifically for control system cybersecurity.        

Personnel and an ICS-CERT Needed

Arguably, there are less than several hundred people worldwide with expertise that falls in the realm of ICS security experts. Of that very small number, an even smaller fraction exists within the electric power community.
There are many reasons for this imbalance. As opposed to traditional business IT, the area of ICS cybersecurity is a still developing area. It's an interdisciplinary field encompassing computer science, networking, public policy and engineering control system theory and applications. Unfortunately, today's computer science curricula often do not address the unique aspects of control systems. Likewise, most of the electrical, chemical, mechanical, nuclear and industrial engineering curricula don't address computer security.

Consequently, there is a need to form joint programs for ICS security. Presently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are developing an ICS security curriculum at the policy level, but there is still a need to develop the technical curriculum.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy funded a project in 2004 that helped establish its Computer Emergency.

Response Team (CERT) for the energy industry's control systems, and this has been expanded to include other industries as the Industrial Control System (ICS) CERT. However, the CERT/Coordination Center (CC) at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute and other existing CERTs have little experience in dealing with the direct cyber impacts of Internet- and other cyber-based attacks on ICSs. What is needed is a non-governmental ICS-CERT capability that deals, not only with traditional Internet-based cyber vulnerabilities and threats, but also with those that arise at the intersection of network-based IT systems and ICSs. This ICS-CERT would collect and process cybersecurity reports for ICS end users, distribute alerts and recommendations, develop and disseminate best practices and training on countermeasures, and analyze new data to support existing activities and form responses to new threats.        

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