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National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (NCSAM) - Week 4

cybersecurity utilities

 Cybersecurity for Our Critical Infrastructure - Utilities - Thoughts of a CSO

The Utilities sector has been well positioned for several years as a Critical Infrastructure based on Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) requirements to adhere to the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) guidelines and Cybersecurity Risk Management Process guidance.  In the past, the challenge has been that Corporate Information Technology was managed separately then Industrial Control Systems (ICS) which provided gaps for bad actors to exploit.  These days the challenge is expanding to end users with emerging "always-on" Internet-connected smart devices.  The challenges posed are both to the end-user consumer and to the overall power grid based on coordinated attack capabilities.  This is further complicated by most end-user consumer smart devices having all or some components manufactured outside the USA entering foreign made embedded chips that could be used against another nation, corporation, and/or individual with minimal effort.  This sector is the most important of all Critical Infrastructure industries as the other sectors need utilities to operate.

These types of threats have been proven and the genie is out of the bottle.  Stuxnet, a sophisticated computer worm that targets centrifuges used to produce the enriched uranium that powers nuclear weapons and reactors, is the prime example of this situation that was contained and tested in a controlled environment protected to a greater level than Utilities.  Direct action may be more difficult to execute but still, nation-state actors will find successful opportunities. 

The challenge for the Utilities sector is to establish detective controls that spot anomalies before they can be detected by a human.  The biggest threats will come from indirect sources (Vendors, Suppliers, Customers) in the future.  These channels will have weaknesses that cannot be addressed, and safe measures will need to be implemented with the expectation that those channels are compromised.  Visualization of your organizational CyberPosture at all levels will become the norm and monitored as closely as are Voltage range and Kilowatt usage.  When there is no defined boundary to keep bad actors out the shift is towards real-time monitoring.

Yes, all organizations are implementing best practices shift left for coding, DevSecOps, etc., but in many cases, the ability to consolidate the CyberPosture view in real-time has not yet been implemented.  The usage of data visualization is another dynamic tool that has been lagging, but I expect this to become the new security domain field that will attract a great deal of attention over the next 12 to 18 months.  The National Association of Corporate Directors, highlighted in their 2017 Cyber-Risk Oversight guidance, the need for this data visualization.  My previous work at Verizon on the Verizon Risk Report (VRR) combined the Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR) with threat intelligence from Recorded Future and external risk vectors from BitSight, which provided a security industry foundational baseline for others to build from that created great visualization techniques.  Side Note: There was some data visualization introduced with the 2018 DBIR report on the website that reduced the report size which provided historical context of top threats over time.  The second level of the VRR started to include various elements of inside-out security sources (starting with End Point Detection and Protection leveraging Tanium and Cylance) and was expanding to culture and process elements at the third level.  There is more work to be done with many other security areas being incorporated.  In my recent discussions with a major telecommunications provider and a national bank,  the data visualization movement has started and will continue gaining momentum. 

Besides data visualization, I expect that all critical infrastructure industries will expand physical air gap separation of networks.  In some ways, we are returning to the 1990s.  Back in those days, I supported customers that had air gaps.  A French bank kept Internet computers off the corporate network; a major University kept Student and Financial systems on a separate network, and a major of military establishment used air gaps.  We have allowed technology gains to fool us into thinking that we are more secure when in fact those solutions increased the risk factors.  This happened for several reasons: product development cycles were sped out the door and there is a minimal financial risk of providing insecure software and hardware to most customers.   If you introduce an unsafe automotive vehicle then there are financial penalties that those manufacturers must pay for the people that are hurt and/or killed as a result.  When have you seen a technology company punished for releasing unsafe hardware and/or software?  Therefore Utilities, actually all critical infrastructures, need to design security architectures that expect security flaws to be built-in the solutions that they purchase and implement.

For more on this and protecting our critical infrastructure, check out our Webcast on October 24th, Protecting Our Critical Infrastructure Starts with NIST CSF.  If you cannot make it, no worries, register anyway and a link to the recording will be sent to you following the event.


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