Hostile nations have breached U.S. infrastructure. But don't panic
For years, government officials and security experts have warned that the security of the nation’s critical infrastructure is drastically porous – vulnerable to cyberattacks that could take down the entire energy grid. Those warnings have been tempered recently, but the possibility remains
Taylor Armerding Nov 06th 2015

He cited the cyber espionage campaign named Dragonfly (aka Energetic Bear), which security vendor Symantec reported in 2014 had targeted U.S. and European energy firms. The attacks bore the, “hallmarks of a state-sponsored operation,” it said.

“It appears that their mission has been information gathering,” Berman said.

Having access and doing damage are two very different consequences,” of cyber intrusions. al berman

Alan Berman, president, DRI International

But that mentality may not apply with less stable nation states like Iran and North Korea, or terrorist groups like ISIL, which seem to be more interested in apocalyptic conflicts than simply maintaining their own national security.

And Joe Weiss, managing partner at Applied Control Solutions, said it is not just Russia and China that have the capability to breach U.S. systems. “The Iranians are very good at this,” he said.

What is more worrisome to Weiss and others is that not much has changed to improve security of ICS in the past decade, even with the increase and sophistication of attacks.

The large majority of ICS facilities have hard-coded passwords, which can’t be changed without modifying the entire program.

That is because, as Udi Yavo, cofounder and CTO of enSilo, put it, those systems were, “designed under the assumption that they would never be connected to other systems, including the Internet,” and therefore, designers didn’t “bake in the relevant security measures.”

Petersen agrees. Since those systems were, “largely isolated, not connected to the Internet, they weren’t designed for security since nobody could get to them without physical access,” he said. “That has all changed. ICS are now connected to corporate networks that are connected to the Internet, and are remotely accessible.”

And patching the vulnerabilities is close to impossible. “They act as a sort of Band-Aid, not fixing the root cause of the problem,” Yavo said.

(We have to) reduce the attack surface. That includes disengaging connectivity between the critical systems and the Internet, limiting VPN access, enforcing two-factor authentication, etc. udi yavo

Udi Yavo, cofounder and CTO, enSilo

Also, what Lewis said six years ago is still true – major generators cannot be replaced quickly. “We’re talking about nine to 18 months,” Weiss said.

That doesn’t mean the immediate future is hopeless, however.

Berman said there are both public and private-sector groups working on improving detection and response to cyber intrusions.

The Industrial Control Systems Joint Working Group (ICSJWG) provides a vehicle for communicating and partnering across all critical infrastructure sectors between federal agencies and departments, as well as private asset owners and operators of industrial control systems,” he said.

The goal is cooperation that will alert utilities to known efforts by hackers.

Yavo said the key is to “reduce the attack surface. That includes disengaging connectivity between the critical systems and the Internet, limiting VPN access, enforcing two-factor authentication, etc.”

Petersen said there has to be much more focus on monitoring ICS. “We have to get eyes on these systems and make sure we understand when attacked, if they become compromised, corrupted, or disrupted,” he said.

According to Weiss, that isn’t happening. “We don’t have cyber forensics or logging,” he said. “You can count on one hand the systems that are being monitored.”

Weiss added that the problem is not just that ICS are connected to the Internet. “You can’t blame everything on that,” he said, noting that the Iranian nuclear facilities damaged by the Stuxnet attack were not online.

“The other problem is that they are networked, with remote access,” he said.

The most obvious way to improve ICS security, Petersen said, is simply to do the basics. USA Today reported that an audit of the DoE last year found that 41 servers and 14 workstations used default or easily guessed passwords.

“If organizations would just take a reasonably balanced approach, risk could be dramatically decreased,” Petersen said. “Protect the perimeter, control access, and practice good password hygiene.”

Yavo said the basics are valuable, but won’t make an organization bulletproof either. “It’s not just passwords,” he said. “There are endless ways for a threat actor to enter an organization, such as enticing the user to open a seemingly legitimate file, which in fact contains malicious code. It’s important to understand that a dedicated threat actor is precisely that – dedicated.”

Weiss said another incentive might be even more compelling – pressure from Wall Street.

“One of the major stock rating agencies is now looking at cyber security,” he said. “I talked with one of them a few weeks ago. You want it taken seriously? Have Moody’s start downgrading their stock.”