Utilities Lack Visibility to Prevent All Attacks, Research Shows

As reports of attacks against energy utilities emerge, there is some evidence that they aren't properly secured, two separate studies show.

energy utility security

Infrastructure, such as energy utilities, is an increasingly attractive target for cyber-attackers that aim to cause disruption. Two recent studies show that not every utility is ready to deal with and defend against modern attacks.

On Dec. 23, a power outage hit parts of the Ukraine in what has since been determined to be a cyber-attack.

A new, not yet publicly available report by security firm NSFOCUS that analyzes the malware that has been implicated in the Ukraine outage shows that the attack didn't necessarily use an exotic zero-day vulnerability.

The report concludes that a Trojan called BlackEnergy caused the Ukraine power incident, said Li Donghong, research manager of the NSRI (NSFOCUS Security Research Institute) team. "The Trojan was embedded in email messages and attracted people to click," Donghong said. "Once opened, it was able to spread automatically."

Since the analysis of the attack on the Ukrainian utility is based on a sample of the BlackEnergy Trojan only, NSFOCUS does not know if antivirus technology was in place or if the Trojan evaded it successfully, Donghong said. Even if the underlying system were fully patched, it's also likely that the Trojan would have had an impact, he added.

"As the phish is meant to attract people to click the attachment by ignoring the risk warning, [a] patch cannot help to avoid this from occurring once clicked," Donghong said.

NSFOCUS isn't the only security firm looking at the insecurity of the utility sector. In a 150-participant survey looking into the challenges faced by organizations in the energy sector, security vendor Tripwire found that 76 percent of respondents indicated that their organizations are targets of potential cyber-attacks.

When it comes to the ability of utilities to see potential attacks, the response was somewhat mixed. Tripwire found that 35 percent reported that they were able to accurately track threats to their networks, while 35 percent said that they were not able to accurately track all threats, as there are just too many of them.

"The results aren't very surprising," Tim Erlin, director of IT security and risk strategy for Tripwire, told eWEEK. "Information security is an ongoing challenge for energy, and other industries with industrial control systems."

Energy utilities are often subject to multiple categories of compliance regulations that, in part, mandate certain physical and digital security controls. Erlin commented that compliance and security are often related, but not the same.

"While a security-oriented compliance requirement, like the NERC [North American Electric Reliability Corporation] Critical Infrastructure Protection Standard, can raise the bar across an industry, it's often a starting point, rather than a solid best practice," Erlin said. "Utilities should look carefully at how much visibility they have into their systems and networks from a security standpoint."

Focusing on how quickly a utility can identify changes and vulnerabilities in the environment is a good start, Erlin said, adding that monitoring how systems are behaving for suspicious events is also important. "Utilities should determine how they can effectively investigate incidents before they actually have one," Erlin said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. 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.