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After Stuxnet: The New Rules of Cyberwar

Robert L Mitchell November 8, 2012
After Stuxnet: The New Rules of Cyberwar
Critical infrastructure providers face off against a rising tide of increasingly sophisticated and potentially destructive attacks emanating from hacktivists, spies and militarized malware.

Three years ago, when electric grid operators were starting to talk about the need to protect critical infrastructure from cyberattacks, few utilities had even hired a chief information security officer.

Then came Stuxnet.

In 2010, that malware, widely reported to have been created by the U.S. and Israel, reportedly destroyed 1,000 centrifuges thatIran was using to enrich uranium after taking over the computerized systems that operated the centrifuges.

Gen. Michael Hayden, principal at security consultancy The Chertoff Group, was director of the National Security Agency, and then the CIA, during the years leading up to the event. "I have to be careful about this," he says, "but in a time of peace, someone deployed a cyberweapon to destroy what another nation would describe as its critical infrastructure." In taking this step, the perpetrator not only demonstrated that control systems are vulnerable, but also legitimized this kind of activity by a nation-state, he says.

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The attack rattled the industry. "Stuxnet was a game-changer because it opened people's eyes to the fact that a cyber event can actually result in physical damage," says Mark Weatherford, deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity in the National Protection Programs Directorate at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In another development that raised awareness of the threat of cyberwar, the U.S.government in October accused Iranof launching distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against U.S. financial institutions.

In a speech intended to build support for stalled legislation known as the Cybersecurity Act that would enable greater information sharing and improved cybersecurity standards, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that the nation faced the possibility of a "cyber Pearl Harbor" unless action was taken to better protect critical infrastructure.

"Awareness of the problem has been the biggest change" since the release of Stuxnet, says Tim Roxey, chief cybersecurity officer for the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), a trade group serving electrical grid operators. He noted that job titles such as CISO and cybersecurity officer are much more common than they once were, new cybersecurity standards are now under development, and there's a greater emphasis on information sharing, both within the industry and with the DHS through sector-specific Information Sharing and Analysis Centers(Read our timeline of critical infrastructure attacks over the years.)

On the other hand, cybersecurity is still not among the top five reliability concerns for most utilities, according to John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner. Says Roxey: "It's clearly in the top 10." But then, so is vegetation management.

Compounding the challenge is the fact that regulated utilities tend to have tight budgets. That's a big problem, says Paul Kurtz, managing director of international practice at security engineering company CyberPoint International and former senior director for critical infrastructure protection at the White House's Homeland Security Council. "We're not offering cost-effective, measurable solutions," he says. "How do you do this without hemorrhaging cash?"

Falling Behind

Most experts agree that critical infrastructure providers have a long way to go. Melissa Hathaway, president of Hathaway Global Strategies, was the Obama administration's acting senior director for cyberspace in 2009. That year, she issued a Cyberspace Policy Review report that included recommendations for better protecting critical infrastructure, but there hasn't been much movement toward implementing those recommendations, she says. A draft National Cyber Incident Response plan has been published, but a national-level exercise, conducted in June, showed that the plan was insufficient to protect critical infrastructure.

"A lot of critical infrastructure is not even protected from basic hacking. I don't think the industry has done enough to address the risk, and they're looking for the government to somehow offset their costs," Hathaway says. There is, however, a broad recognition that critical infrastructure is vulnerable and that something needs to be done about it.

The Department of Defense has a direct stake in the security of the country's critical infrastructure because the military depends on it. "The Defense Science Board Task Force did a review of DOD reliance on critical infrastructure and found that an astute opponent could attack and harm the DOD's capabilities," says James Lewis, a senior fellow specializing in cybersecurity at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

At a forum in July, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander was asked to rate the state ofU.S.preparedness for an attack on critical infrastructure on a scale of 1 to 10. He responded, "I would say around a 3." The reasons include the inability to rapidly detect and respond to attacks, a lack of cybersecurity standards and a general unwillingness by both private companies and government agencies to share detailed information about threats and attacks.

Computerized control systems are a potential problem area because the same systems are in use across many different types of critical infrastructure. "Where you used to turn dials or throw a switch, all of that is done electronically now," Schmidt says.

In addition, many industrial control systems that used to be "air-gapped" from the Internet are now connected to corporate networks for business reasons. "We've seen spreadsheets with thousands of control system components that are directly connected to the Internet. Some of those components contain known vulnerabilities that are readily exploitable without much sophistication," says Marty Edwards, director of control systems security at the Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) at the DHS. The organization, with a staff that's grown tenfold to 400 in the past four years, offers control system security standards, shares threat data with critical infrastructure providers and has a rapid response team of "cyberninjas," high-level control systems engineers and cybersecurity analysts who can be deployed at a moment's notice.

Last year, ICS-CERT issued 5,200 alerts and advisories to private industry and government. "[Edwards] had teams fly out seven times last year to help businesses respond to events that either took them offline or severely impacted operations," says Weatherford, who declined to provide details on the nature of those events.

Control systems also suffer from another major weakness: They're usually relatively old and can't easily be patched. "A lot of them were never designed to operate in a network environment, and they aren't designed to take upgrades," Schmidt says. "Its firmware is soldered onto the device, and the only way to fix it is to replace it." Since the systems were designed to last 10 to 20 years, organizations need to build protections around them until they can be replaced. In other cases, updates can be made, but operators have to wait for the service providers who maintain the equipment to do the patching.

Source: Computerworld (US)