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Critical infrastructure in the crosshairs

Critical infrastructure in the crosshairs

The security threat faced by government networks and computer systems should now be obvious to everyone, even if some of the efforts to protect against those threats have been tardy. Threats against critical infrastructure systems, which are just as important to all levels of government, are less well known.

Security vendor Kaspersky Labs has taken a deep dive into the world of industrial control systems (ICS), which form the digital backbone of critical infrastructure systems, and found that it’s a very scary place. Even though the 189 ICS vulnerabilities it found in 2015 are at the same level of the past few years, the report said, that’s 10 times more than were discovered in 2010.

The higher numbers can likely be put down to increased attention on ICS security. However, as Kaspersky pointed out, that also means those vulnerabilities likely have been present for years before they were discovered and, presumably, open to exploit that whole time.

Just under half of the vulnerabilities in 2015 were considered critical by Kaspersky, and most of the rest were of “medium severity.” However, exploits for 26 of the vulnerabilities are already available, it said, while for many of the others no exploit code was necessary to get unauthorized access to the vulnerable systems. Kaspersky also found that only 85 percent of the published vulnerabilities had been completely fixed.

As with other types of cyberattacks, the threats against critical infrastructure systems seem to be getting more sophisticated. The hairs on the back of many peoples’ necks stood to attention when a likely state-sponsored attack on Ukraine’s power grid in December last year was discovered. An analysis said it was the first time such an attack had been made against a nation’s critical infrastructure systems.

Fearful that a similar attack could be leveled against U.S. systems, several senators recently proposed legislation that seeks to guard against that by replacing some of the digital components in the U.S. power grid with analog versions as a first attempt to stiffen the country’s critical infrastructure defenses.

The bad news continues. SentinelOne, another security firm, has found other sophisticated malware targeting at least one energy company. It’s likely a dropper tool used to gain access to carefully targeted network users, and it “exhibits traits seen in previous nation-state Rootlets and appears to have been designed by multiple developers with high-level skills and access to considerable resources,” the company said.

In other words, this is another piece of government-sponsored malware aimed at critical infrastructure. What’s more concerning is that the malware, called Furtim, was found on a dark web hacking forum, where such government-sponsored stuff isn’t usually found.

The potential danger of these kinds of attacks has been recognized by the U.S. government for some time, with outfits such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Homeland Security describing various security frameworks and monitoring practices that companies and infrastructure organizations should adopt to boost their cyber defenses.

More specific tools could be on the way. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, will soon kick off its Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterizations Systems (RADICS) program, which is aimed at developing automated systems that will help utilities restore power within seven days of a cyberattack. Part of that program is intended to produce tools that “can localize and characterize malicious software that has gained access to critical utility systems,” according to the broad agency announcement.

The problems posed by the growing, and increasingly sophisticated, attacks on critical infrastructure expand when the Internet of Things is taken into account. With many systems linked through the IoT, new vulnerabilities may be created by the “expanded” critical infrastructure. As Kaspersky Labs points out, business requirements now often dictate that ICS link with external systems and networks.

Protecting the infrastructure from attack will require a new way of thinking about critical systems cybersecurity. The old ways of isolating critical environment and “security through obscurity” can no longer be considered a sufficient security control for ICS, Kaspersky said.

Posted by Brian Robinson on Jul 18, 2016 at 2:25 PM


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