INSIGHTS | January 30, 2013

Energy Security: Less Say, More Do

Due to recent attacks on many forms of energy management technology ranging from supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) networks and automation hardware devices to smart meters and grid network management systems, companies in the energy industry are increasing significantly the amount they spend on security. However, I believe these organizations are still spending money in the wrong areas of security.  Why? The illusion of security, driven by over-engineered and over-funded policy and control frameworks and the mindset that energy security must be regulated before making a start is preventing, not driving, real world progress.

Sadly, I don’t see organizations in the oil and gas exploration, utility, and consumer energy management sectors taking more visible and proactive approaches to improving the security of their assets in 2013 any more than they did in 2012.
It’s only January, you protest. But let me ask you: on what areas are your security teams going to focus in 2013?
I’ve had the privilege in the past six months of travelling to Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. to deliver projects and have seen a number of consistent shortcomings in security programs in almost every energy-related organization that I have dealt with. Specialized security teams within IT departments are commonplace now, which is great. But these teams have been in place for some time. And even though as an industry we spend millions on security products every year, the number of security incidents is also increasing every year.  I’m sure this trend will continue in 2013. It is clear to me (and this is a global issue in energy security), that the great majority of organizations do not know where or how to correctly spend their security budgets.
Information security teams focus heavily on compliance, policies, controls, and the paper perception of what good security looks like when in fact there is little or no evidence that this is the case. Energy organizations do very little testing to validate the effectiveness of their security controls, which leaves these companies exposed to attacks and wondering what they are doing wrong.


For example, automated malware has been mentioned many times in the press and is a persistent threat, but companies are living under the misapprehension that having endpoint solutions alone will protect them from this threat. Network architectures are still being poorly designed and communication channels are still operating in the clear, leaving critical infrastructure solutions exposed and vulnerable.
I do not mean to detract from technology vendors who are working hard to keep up with all the new malware challenges, and let’s face it, we would we would be lost without many of their solutions. But organizations that are purchasing these products need to “trust but verify” these products and solutions by requiring vendors and solution integrators to prove that the security solutions they are selling are in fact secure. The energy industry as a whole needs to focus on proving the existence of controls and to not rely on documents and designs that say how a system should be secure. Policies may make you look good, but how many people read them? And, if they did read them, would they follow them? How would you know? And could you place your hand on heart and swear to the CEO, “I’m confident that our critical systems and data cannot be compromised.”?


I say, “Less say, more do in 2013.” Energy companies globally need to stop waiting for regulations or for incidents to happen and must do more to secure their systems and supply. We know we have a problem in the industry and it won’t go away while we wait for more documents that define how we should improve our security defenses. Make a start. The concepts aren’t new, and it’s better to invest money and effort in improved systems rather than churning out more polices and paper controls and hoping they make you more secure. And it is hope, because without evidence how can you really be sure the controls you design and plan are in place and effective?


Start by making improvements in the following areas and your overall security posture will also improve (a lot of this is old news, but sadly is not being done):


Recognize that compliance doesn’t guarantee security. You must validate it.
·         Use ISA99 for SCADA and ISO27001/2/5 for security risk management and controls.
·         Use compliance to drive budget conversations.
·         Don’t get lost in a policy framework. Instead focus on implementing, then validating.
·         Always validate paper security by testing internal and external controls!
Understand what you have and who might want to attack it.
·         Define critical assets and processes.
·         Create a list of who could affect these assets and how.
·         Create a layered security architecture to protect these assets.
·         Do this work in stages. Create value to the business incrementally.
·         Test the effectiveness of your plans!
Do the basics internally, including:
·         Authentication for logins and machine-to-machine communications.
·         Access control to ensure that permissions for new hires, job changers, and departing employees are managed appropriately.
·         Auditing to log significant events for critical systems.
·         Availability by ensuring redundancy and that the organization can recover from unplanned incidents.
·         Integrity by validating critical values and ensuring that accuracy is always upheld.
·         Confidentiality by securing or encrypting sensitive communications.
·         Education to make staff aware of good security behaviors. Take a Health & Safety approach.
Trust but verify when working with your suppliers:
·         Ask vendors to validate their security, not just tell you “it’s secure.”
·         Ask suppliers what their security posture is. Do they align to any security standards? When was the last time they performed a penetration test on client-related systems? Do they use a Security Development Lifecycle for their products?
·         Test their controls or ask them to provide evidence that they do this themselves!
Work with agencies who are there to assist you and make them part of your response strategy, such as:
·         Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT)
·         Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI)
·         North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC)
Trevor Niblock, Director, ICS and Smart Grid Services