"SCADA and Me": An unlikely picturebook for kids, industrial primer for adults

Military expert on industrial control systems dumbs down a complex topic

Rob Lee

Rob Lee

Rob Lee got the idea for SCADA and Me - a barely-technical picturebook that introduces industrial control systems to novices - from a group that should have already known what SCADA systems were but didn’t, and who afterwards suggested that he write up a non-technical handout to distribute at his next briefing.

In a sarcastic mood he outlined a children’s primer that could serve as the handout, then decided it was actually a pretty good idea.

PICTURES: SCADA and Me: Images from the picturebook primer

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He got a publisher to agree, and the book went on sale Sept. 8. Since then it’s sold more than 500 copies on Amazon.com, and that doesn’t count 300 copies ordered for a conference in Madrid or the 1,000 copies a SCADA equipment vendor bought for distribution, says Richard Stiennon, who runs the publishing house IT-Harvest Press.

Initially Stiennon had his doubts. “I said, ‘Yeah. Really,’” he says. After he actually saw the book, though, “I was totally enthralled.”

It’s the story of little Bobby who’s been asked to protect SCADA but doesn’t even know what it is. He’s assisted by an older, bespectacled Matt who shows him a range of places SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems can be found. Little Bobby finally learns that SCADA is like a babysitter keeping watch over networks of sensors in places ranging from electric grids to water filtration plants.

Stiennon says that may sound simplistic, but SCADA is complex, and to describe it technically in such a short picturebook would be tough. “You really can’t fully describe SCADA in any but a complicated way,” he says. “You’d have to drop an encyclopedia in their laps.”

Lee says he chose the artist who drew the pictures, Jeff Haas, because of Haas’s interest in what-do-daddy-and-mommy-do-at-work books.

Lee’s day job is serving as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, deployed as a cyber-operations officer in Germany. Part of his work is briefing Department of Defense officials on SCADA security.

He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2010 with a degree in African studies, expecting to be deployed with the Africa Command and to do humanitarian work. But after taking a six-month unified cyber training course he was hooked on the technology.

Now he has a basement lab at home where he creates SCADA simulations on virtual machines and attacks them to get familiar with the protocols used and their vulnerabilities. He got hold of a copy of Stuxnet and some Siemens industrial controllers so he could mock up the attack on Iranian nuclear facilities in Iran to observe in detail how that exploit worked.

He satisfies the geek in himself with his tests but says that in the real world it’s more important to prevent attackers from reaching the SCADA network than to try to shore up every piece of the control network itself. “If the adversary has gotten there, it’s already lost,” he says. “Don’t worry about Stuxnet; worry about doing the basics of security.”

That means use of intrusion-detection systems, good network forensics, defense against traditional attacks such as SQL injection and cross-site scripting – even whitelisting applications at smaller facilities.

The biggest advantage defenders should have is a thorough knowledge of their own network – something attackers shouldn’t have and something that can help defenders detect attacks.

In addition to SCADA and Me, Lee is teaching courses about SCADA security and hopes to develop a free online course on the subject. Many people who need to know about the subject don’t, and he wants to help them overcome the intimidation factor they might feel jumping in to formal classes.

He says he doesn’t consider himself a SCADA expert, but probably qualifies as one. “The bar for expertise is low right now,” he says. “I think I meet the low bar, but I think Rob Lee should not be the bar.”

Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communications for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter@Tim_Greene.

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