Protecting critical infrastructure in your own backyard

As agencies adopt connected and automated technologies, they must ensure their IT security policies cover these new operational assets.

In its very first Cybersecurity Executive Order, the Trump administration mandated broader support for strengthening both the cybersecurity of federal networks and of our nation’s critical infrastructure.  While it’s tempting to see these as two parallel but fundamentally separate objectives, it becomes harder to separate the two when federal agencies are discovering entirely new categories of vulnerable physical and logical assets right in their own backyards.

Cybersecurity executives at agencies that are not directly called out by the Department of Homeland Security as one of the 16 identified critical industry sectors might not see an immediate connection between “critical infrastructure” and their job duties. Yet, every agency now has operations that are “critical” (beyond traditional IT) that rely on internet-connected devices and systems and are therefore increasingly subject to and vulnerable to attack. As network connec­tivity and automation increase, so too do threats and attacks that will inevitably disrupt, mismanage or take control of operational assets common to all agencies such as physical security systems, energy management, mail process­ing equipment and so on.

Steve Grewal, former deputy CIO of the General Services Administration and now federal CTO at Cohesity, is concerned about the cyber exposure of automation control systems. “In my experience, there was rarely a consensus between business and IT on how these systems should be categorized, resourced and managed, which resulted in a lack of ownership for these systems on the cybersecurity side of the house.”

As operational technology (OT) increasingly moves to IP-based networks, however, it is unavoidably entering the IT and cyber domain.  Additionally, the rapid pace by which enterprises are absorbing whole new categories of both logical and physical assets presents a great challenge for CIOs, CISOs and other cyber executives. So, how can agencies identify, gain visibility into and protect these new assets -- including OT, on- and off-premise cloud assets and special-purpose endpoint devices -- that exist in their own backyard?

Here are some issues IT managers should consider:

Scope the problem: Ask yourself if you have adequately scoped the problem. Are you aware of the different operational networks or technologies in your organization that may be transitioning from legacy proprietary communications to IP-based networks? Do you know that it is happening and when it is happening?

The basics of compliance: The first requirement of the Federal Information Security Management Act is to know your assets. The sheer number (and types) of assets that agencies must cover for effective security operations and meeting reporting requirements is growing exponentially. One challenge of asset discovery and secure configuration management on the OT network derives from the various legacy industrial protocols that are prevalent on these networks.  To conduct a proper inventory, agencies need tools that can decipher various industrial communication protocols. Do you know what assets you currently have across your enterprise and on what schedule new asset types will be added? Do you have the ability to query them?

Cultural challenges.  IT professionals who have based their security practices on the foundation of the CIA (confidentiality, integrity and availability) triad will have to adapt to different priorities. In the operational world, availability almost always takes precedence over confidentiality and integrity. What’s more, for many operational technologies, IT professionals must make room for a fourth priority -- safety.  Sometimes, well-meaning efforts to bring IT security processes and technologies into operational technologies fail before they ever begin, simply because the IT team doesn’t have an appreciation for the primacy of availability and safety in the OT world. Do you have forums or other mechanisms in place to facilitate communications between IT and OT today? Are you prepared to listen and adapt your priorities where safety becomes an issue?

Acknowledge the cybersecurity skills gap: Today’s cybersecurity skills gap presents fundamental challenges to any security strategy, especially as these strategies begin to absorb new categories of systems. If a security team has to acquire, deploy, implement and maintain separate sets of tools and reports for legacy solutions, for cloud solutions and for industrial controls systems (ICS), it will never get off the hamster wheel. Look at the current IT people, processes and technologies and then assess whether the current enterprise security architecture can accommodate a rapid expansion of both physical and logical asset types. How do security tools work together to manage all IT and operational assets as an enterprise? Or as Grewal asks, “How do you put the right enterprise architecture in place so that you don’t have all these silos? Are your IT security investments extensible from your legacy environments to operational technologies and networks?”  

Develop an effective security strategy: In order for organizations to effectively secure their critical infrastructure assets, they must take a layered approach. Responses from a recent survey of more than 150 security professionals at energy, oil and gas companies demonstrates an interesting disconnect. Seventy-six percent believed that their companies were investing “sufficiently” in ICS security -- on its face, a positive statistic. Yet, only 20 percent said they implement a multilayered approach to ICS security. This indicates that the majority of those responsible for managing ICS security, at least in the energy industry, still have the single-layered approach mindset and believe they are investing enough. Surely, the government’s past experience with FISMA and risk management will protect it from this fallacy, at least on the IT side. But are those responsible for OT in your environment sufficiently aware of the breadth and nature of possible attack modes? 

The reality is that agencies can no longer separate the cybersecurity objectives of federal networks and CI. With the expansion of critical operational assets common to all agencies, the opportunity for chaos is plentiful -- and increases exponentially as agencies adopt the internet of things.

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