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Employees put critical infrastructure security at risk

Sweeping change needed to boost critical infrastructure security handcuffed by lack of cooperation between IT, grid operations workers

By Matt Hines, CSO
January 25, 2013 07:45 AM ET

CSO - Critical infrastructure providers' worst security vulnerability may be their employees.

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security's Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) detailed two separate incidents where IT systems connected directly to key energy industry assets were found to be infected with malware that had been deployed using infected USB drives, highlighting gaps in the organizations' basic security controls.

[RELATED: Securing SCADA still a piecemeal affair]

Over the last year, concerns about power grid infrastructure security have grown as malware such as Stuxnet and Flame highlighted vulnerabilities in important industrial controls systems (ICS) systems

Given the sheer complexity of protecting long-embedded SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) software systems -- originally designed for use in walled environments and now exposed to the Internet -- it's not hard to understand why infrastructure providers still struggle to tighten security.

However, the largest obstacle isn't technical quandary, but the continued inability of IT security and operational management teams to partner effectively.

"It's actually pretty discouraging how little has changed, based on this lack of cohesiveness between the IT security teams and the operational staff responsible for maintaining uptime of industrial systems," said Avivah Litan, a senior security analyst with Gartner. "There's still a culture of organizational bureaucracies and territorialism, and little urgency to get things done; everyone reports to their own boss, workers are not pushed to work together and despite all the attention few CEOs or executives seem focused on the problem."

Litan said that while financial services companies responsible for keeping electronic markets online have made significant gains in solving this issue, along with telecommunications companies and some high-tech manufacturers, energy industry companies remain problematic.

"Certainly both security teams and operational workers are aware of the threat, but they're not well equipped to deal with it," said Litan. "[IT] thinks it can charge in and apply traditional policies, while the operators of these SCADA and other ICS systems are very wary of allowing anyone to make changes in their environments. Until senior management forces this cooperation to take place, there won't be major gains, and even then it will take time."

Different hats, different languages

While change has come slowly to the grid sector, security improvements are taking place, driven in part by compliance mandates such as the North American Electric Reliability Corp's Critical Infrastructure Protection program -- and fear among grid operators of additional regulations from the U.S. government. 

"The market has acknowledged the need to automate the management of their heterogeneous control systems and begun large-scale projects to enhance security, compliance and change management," said Brian Ahern, CEO of Industrial Defender, which serves grid industry security needs.

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