network infrastructure (Jackie Niam/Shutterstock.com)

Infrastructure cybersecurity must be context sensitive, expert says

A new security directive from the Transportation Security Administration that takes aim at identifying, protecting against and responding to threats to companies in the pipeline sector may unintentionally hinder the process, an expert said.

A response to the ransomware attack by Russian hacker group DarkSide on Colonial Pipeline that shut down a conduit that provides nearly half the East Coast’s fuel, the directive includes three main requirements. First, pipeline owners and operators will have to report confirmed and potential cybersecurity incidents to the Homeland Security Department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Second, they will need to designate a cybersecurity coordinator, who will be available around the clock. Third, owners and operators must review their current cybersecurity practices, identify any gaps and related remediation measures and report the results to TSA and CISA within 30 days.

TSA, which is responsible for the cybersecurity of energy pipelines, has worked with pipeline owners and operators since 2001 to enhance physical security of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines, but this new directive, announced May 27, puts cyber in the crosshairs. Overall, that’s good, said Henry Young, policy director at BSA/The Software Alliance, but it’s tricky because companies have separate approaches.

“The companies themselves should have separate approaches,” said Young, who worked at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Commerce Department. “What works for one company is not going to work for another company, but across sectors at the broader, U.S. government critical infrastructure level, it’s really hard to have lots of different requirements for each sector.”

Every organization -- public and private alike -- is resource-constrained, so when the government makes new requirements, there are two possible outcomes, he said. One is that the vendor could re-engineer the product to meet the specifications, but that makes it custom – and expensive. The other is that vendors won’t sell to the government if they can’t cover the cost of that re-engineering, and that means agencies may not have access to best-in-class products.

Another concern is resource distribution, Young said: By requiring vendors to spend resources to meet its requirements, the Department of Homeland Security could be limiting what companies might spend on other cybersecurity activities.

“It will take up resources, and the questions is, could those organizations put those resources to better use? And the answer is we don’t know for sure,” he said. “That’s not DHS’s fault that they don’t know for sure, and it’s not the organizations’ fault. Some of these things just are impossible to know with certainty.”

What is certain is that the potential for these types of infrastructure attacks exists and could grow. A cyberattack last month on JBS SA, the world’s largest meat producer, led the company to shut down all of its U.S. beef plants for about a week. In February, a hacker momentarily increased the amount of sodium hydroxide in Oldsmar, Fla.’s water supply, to potentially dangerous levels.

“Cybersecurity is an evolving landscape, and if there are more attacks, it might change both industry and the government’s approach,” Young said.

President Joe Biden’s May 12 Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity calls for just that: “Protecting our Nation from malicious cyber actors requires the Federal Government to partner with the private sector. The private sector must adapt to the continuously changing threat environment, ensure its products are built and operate securely, and partner with the Federal Government to foster a more secure cyberspace.” 

Although Young said that company executives must make infrastructure cybersecurity a priority – 90% of the country’s power network is privately held, according to the Energy Department – he cautions against the development of a sweeping standard that treats all digital infrastructure the same way.

“There’s consensus in the security community that risk management occurs in a context … so the question is how can a pipeline company or how can a health care company or how can a communications company manage its cybersecurity risk?” Young said. “Most people think of those as being very context-specific. A piece of software that might be really important to one company might not be as important to another company, and the ability to have a flexible prioritization is really important.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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