Are your security practices up to IT standards?

Joe Weiss and Jay Abshier, world class security consultants for process automation, write about the battle between the world of IT and Plant Operations. So, who’s right in the fight for control system security?

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Cybersecurity WarsBy Jay Abshier, CISSP CBCP, and Joe Weiss, PE CISM, KEMA Consulting


AS CONSULTANTS, we often hear from IT professionals that their Operations counterparts won’t cooperate, and that their systems aren’t secure or in compliance with corporate standards. They tell us they fear that Operations will cause their systems to be attacked.

From Operations, we hear that IT doesn’t understand their business or their constraints, and insists on steps that will negatively impact operations. Operations also fears IT will cause their systems to be attacked.

In fact, at KEMA’s 5th Annual Conference on the Cyber Security of SCADA and Process Control Systems there were several presentations that discussed this subject, resulting in heated discussions during and after the conference. KEMA is a consulting, testing, inspection and certification firm for energy companies.

So, who’s right? Before trying to answer this question, let’s understand the two sides’ different perspectives, starting with a review of Operations’ background, and why this is even an issue.

Operations: The Early Days
Until recently, and in some shops to this day, the computing infrastructure for the control system environment was totally proprietary, and usually based on serial communications. This infrastructure was so different that very few IT organizations had the skills to support Operations. However, control system devices increasingly are being delivered or upgraded to support the TCP/IP protocol, and gateways have been written for the arcane serial protocols, so they can be encapsulated in TCP/IP.  


"The inconvenience of having a disgruntled employee commit sabotage, or a worm running rampant, is far greater than the inconvenience of most security controls."


In 2003, the Energy Management System User Group surveyed 16 utilities about whether SCADA was “owned” by Operations or IT, and which provided computer and network support. The results were mixed, but a majority reported they weren’t part of corporate IT, and didn’t get support from IT on any EMS tasks. These mixed results are consistent with the informal responses received from many different utilities and other industrial organizations.

Many of the SCADA and power-plant operator/engineer workstations, as well as substation and power-plant laptop computers, appear to be the same as those used in traditional IT business systems, despite the fact they have very different applications and remote connections. Consequently, Operations’ computing infrastructure is starting to look a lot like corporate IT infrastructures. In fact, TCP/IP connections are being installed between the two, and sometimes to networks beyond, including the Internet.  

Consequently, IT is taking an interest in Operations’ network, and understandably wants to treat it as part of the corporate network because they’re now connected. Also, there is often a sharing of IT infrastructure such as LANs, firewalls and routers by Operations and IT.

However, IT often lacks knowledge of operational and administrative control systems’ differing needs. Quite often, the conversation between IT and Operations about this subject ends in conflict. Now, lets examine some reasons why this conflict exists.

IT’s Perspective
IT shops try to protect an environment that is constantly chaotic and changing. New devices constantly are added, new users and new applications make demands of bandwidth and firewall rules, and IT constantly worry about keeping out worms and viruses.

To accomplish this almost impossible task, IT fought long and hard to establish ground rules that everyone must follow. These include requiring each individual to have a unique user ID (without which there’s no accountability or verification of actions), requiring complex password construction (it takes only about 3 sec to break a simple password), and enforcement of rigorous patch management procedures (to make sure devices aren’t vulnerable to worms or viruses in case one gets through the perimeter). These are just a few of the many requirements that are basic to protecting corporate environments.

Implementing these requirements isn’t easy for IT or the user community. While the goal of IT, and IT Security in particular, is to not interfere with business objectives, it’s impossible to implement these requirements without some inconvenience to users. However, the inconvenience of having a disgruntled employee commit sabotage or a worm running rampant is far greater than the inconvenience of most security controls. Obviously, IT is used to meeting resistance when trying to implement inconvenient practices that are necessary for the welfare of the company and its individual users. Non-compliance is really justified very rarely. Even when it is justified, IT must worry about how to protect vulnerable devices and users. 

Operations’ Perspective
Without Operations, it’s likely your company wouldn’t exist. Granted, other business functions add value, and some even generate income. However, without Operations generating a product–whether it’s food, paper, toothpaste, electricity, potable water, oil, refined fuels, natural gas or chemicals–none of the other business functions would have products to transport, trade, or market.

In essence, money generated to fund most other business units depends on the margin between Operations’ budget (to buy raw materials and generate product) and the products’ sale price. Therefore, Operations is pressured to keep its budget low, sometimes to a greater degree than other divisions. Consequently, one of Operations’ primary goals is stability. To achieve it, the lifespan of control systems is usually measured in years and, many times, in decades. Also, all changes to the systems, including software updates and security patches, must be approved by the vendor(s), and then rigorously tested by Operations before being applied. Therefore, the lag time from when updates or patches are available and when they can be implemented is weeks, at least. In fact, some systems are version locked due to the very expensive applications they run.

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