SANS Industrial Control Systems Security Blog

Security Awareness and ICS Cyber Attacks - Telling the Right Story

A lack of security awareness and the culture that surrounds security is a widely understood problem in the cyber security community. In the ICS community this problem is impactful towards operations and understanding the scope of the threats we face. A recent report by the Chatham House titled "Cyber Security at Civil Nuclear Facilities" shined a light on these issues in the nuclear industry through an 18 month long project.

The report highlights a number of prevailing problems in the nuclear sector that make security more difficult; the findings do not represent all nuclear sector entities but take a look at the sector as a whole. Friction between IT and OT personnel, the prevailing myth that the air gap is an effective single security solution, and a lack of understanding the problem are all cited as major findings of the research group.

The group recommends a number of actions which need to be taken and these can be mapped along the Sliding Scale of Cyber Security. A big focus is placed on better designing the systems to have security built into them which can be understood in the Architecture phase of the scale. Another focus was on leveraging whitelisting and intrusion detection systems as well as other Passive Defense mechanisms instead of just an air gap. Lastly, one of the most significant recommendations was towards getting more personnel trained in cybersecurity practices (SANS offers ICS410 and ICS515 to address these types of concerns) and take a proactive approach versus a reactive approach towards finding threats in the environment - this recommendations maps to the Active Defense component of the scale which focuses on empowering analysts and security personnel to hunt for and respond to threats.

One of the more interesting major recommendations put forth by the report was:
"The infrequency of cyber security incident disclosure at nuclear facilities makes it difficult to assess the true extent of the problem and may lead nuclear industry personnel to believe that there are few incidents. Moreover, limited collaboration with other industries or information-sharing means that the nuclear industry tends not to learn from other industries that are more advanced in this field."

At SANS we have consistently observed this as an issue in the wider community and try to bring the community together with events such as the ICS Summit to help address the concern and promote community sharing. No single event or effort alone though can fix the problem. A lack of information sharing and incident disclosure has led to a false sense of security while also allowing fake or hyped up stories in news media to become the representation of our industry to people in our community and external to it.

This aspect of infrequency of cyber security incident disclosure can be observed in multiple places. As an example, an article from 2014 by Inside Energy compiled incident reporting to the Department of Energy about electric grid outages and over 15 years noted that there were 14 incidents related to a cyber event. The earliest cyber attack was identified in 2003 but then there was a lack of events until 2011-2014 which made up the other 13 cases. It should be noted that the reporting for a cyber attack was any type of unauthorized access to the system including the hardware, software, and data.

We in the industry need to have better data so that we can more fully understand and categorize attacks along models such as the ICS Cyber Kill Chain to extract lessons learned. What is revealing about the Department of Energy data though is the lack of visibility into the ICS networked environment. As an example, in the data set there is a measured understanding of impact for physical attacks, fires, storms, etc. showing great visibility into the ICS as a whole but for every single event regarding cyber the impact was either labeled as zero or unknown; that in combination with no data for 2003-2011 is less representative of the number of events and more representative of missing data. It has become clear over the years that a significant number of ICS organizations do not have personnel that are trained and empowered to look into the network to find threats. This must change and the findings must be shared, anonymously and appropriately, with the community if we are ever to scope the true threat in the community and determine the appropriate resource investments and responses to address the issues.

The ICS community stands a unique opportunity to have our story told by our ICS owners, operators, and security personnel to understand and address the problem ourselves. Valuable compilations of data such as that by Inside Energy using the Department of Energy reports as well as the Chatham House report help reinforce this need. Without involvement from the community, the ICS security story will be told by others who may not have the appropriate experience to make the right conclusions and offer helpful solutions. The need for cyber security will influence change in the ICS community through national level policies, regulations, vendor practices, and culture shifts - it is imperative that the right people with real data are writing the story that will drive those changes.

Robert M LeeBio: Robert M. Lee is the course author of ICS515 - Active Defense and Incident Response and the co-author of FOR578 - Cyber Threat Intelligence. He is also the Founder, CEO of Dragos Security and gained his start in cyber security in the U.S. Intelligence Community as a Cyber Warfare Operations officer.