Is U.S. Critical Infrastructure Under Attack?

NEWS ANALYSIS: New reports allege that a dam and multiple power stations were hacked by Iran. What's the real risk, and what needs to be done?

critical infrastructure attacks

A pair of recent reports allege that foreign attackers have been able to infiltrate U.S. critical infrastructure. A Wall Street Journal report alleged that Iranian hackers were able to infiltrate the operation of a dam not far from New York City. An Associated Press report alleged even more widespread risks to the U.S. power grid, in particular an attack involving power producer Calpine.

The public reports that the U.S. power grid has been infiltrated is not being met with surprise by security experts contacted by eWEEK. Barak Perelman, CEO of Indegy, said that after decades of cyber-attacks focusing on "traditional" IT networks, it was a logical next step for hackers and nations to target critical infrastructure. What attacks such as Stuxnet confirmed is that compromising an industrial control device can be just as easy as compromising a PC, he said.

"Cyber-security companies have been focusing on technologies that protect traditional IT networks for the past 20 years," Perelman told eWEEK. "These technologies are not designed to protect operational networks that manage dams or electric substations, which means they have minimal or no protection measures in place."

The idea that industrial control systems aren't yet fully hardened for the modern world of cyber-attacks is shared by Lila Kee, chief product officer and vice president of business development at GlobalSign.

"SCADA [supervisory control and data acquisition] systems have yet to catch up in terms of adequate identity and access management safeguards, increasing cyber vulnerability associated with direct and indirect remote access," Kee told eWEEK. "The reality is grid providers must and are thinking in terms of how to respond to a successful attack."

Kee is a member and participant in the NIST-NCCoE (National Institute of Science and Technology, National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence) Energy Sector Identity and Access Management Use Case Consortium and a member of the Wholesale Electric Quandrant's executive board. Kee noted that the NCCoE's Identity and Access Management for Electric Utilities cyber-security guide addresses the exact issue that played out at Calpine. In the Calpine attack, information was allegedly stolen from a contractor that had access to data.

"NIST in partnership with commercial security vendors such as GlobalSign developed an example solution guide using off-the-shelf commercial products and services to increase network security," Kee said. "One of the design goals was to implement secure access to physical and logically access assets in a method that addressed energy-specific standards such as North American Electric Reliability Corporation Critical Infrastructure Protection [NERC CIP], CyberSecurity Framework and North American Energy Standards Board [NAESB] standards."

Kee explained that the how-to solution guide was designed to address real-life user stories around physical and remote access to networks as described by power generators and transmission and distribution providers. One example the NIST-led guide addresses to increase grid protection is around strong authentication, using two-factor authentication as well as automated and sophisticated access control techniques such as contextual authentication and reliance on a real-time central authorization system, she said.

In the Calpine incident, the root cause appears to be a user risk from a stolen username and password, which can potentially be mitigated by automation, though not entirely.

"There will always be exposure, especially associated with privileged users who have access to rules and policy settings tied to automation," Kee said. "Independent monitoring is vital to the cyber-security equation to assure the appropriate checks and balances are in place."

Perelman commented that in his view automation is not the complete answer to mitigating the risk of cyber-threats in critical infrastructures. He also advocates for the use of improved visibility to monitor the risks.

"Automation can help, but visibility into the status of industrial control systems and the processes they control enables facilities operators to establish procedures and policies for securing them and responding to threats or failures before damage occurs," Perelman said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.