Three Takeaways from the State of Security in Control Systems Survey

The State of Security in Control Systems Today was a SANS survey conducted with 314 ICS community members and was released on June 25th. The whitepaper can be found here and the webcast here. A few things stuck out from the survey that I felt it appropriate to highlight in this blog.


  1. Energy/Utilities Represent

Energy/Utilities made up the most of the respondents with 29.3% in total. While the variables impacting this cannot be narrowed down it is likely that pressure from organizations such as NERC, heavy focus on energy protection in the U.S. in national media and politics, and market interest has at least driven security awareness. We also see an energy bias in other metrics on reporting such as the ICS-CERT’s quarterly reports. This is a both a good thing and an area for improvement. It is great to see the energy sector get heavily involved in events such as this survey, in training conferences, and major events like the electric sector’s GridEx. Personally, I’ve interacted with groups such as the ES-ISAC and been extremely impressed. Getting data from this segment of the community helps understand the problem better so that we can all make the appropriate investments in security.

Takeaway: We really need to do more to reach the other communities. Energy tends to be a hot topic item but it is far from the only industry that has security issues. Each portion of the ICS community from water to pharmaceuticals face similar issues. In the upcoming years hopefully reports like this SANS survey will be able to capture more of those audiences. I feel this is likely given the increased awareness in other industries I have seen even in the last few years.


  1. IT/OT Convergence Seen as 2nd Most Likely Threat

The number one vector the respondents felt was the most significant threat to their ICS was external threats. This makes sense given the increased understanding in the community regarding external actors and the cyber security of operations. However, interestingly the second top threat identified as the integration of IT into control system networks. I really liked seeing this metric because I too believe it presents one of the largest threat vectors to operations. ICS targeted nation state malware tends to get the most media attention. BlackEnergy2, Stuxnet, and Havex were all very concerning. However, it is far more likely on a day to day basis that not architecting and maintaining the network correctly will lead to decreased or stopped operations. The integration of OT and IT also presents a number of challenges with incidental malware that, while non-targeted, presents a significant risk as has been documented numerous times when important systems halt due to accidental malware infections such as Conficker.

Takeaway: The ICS community needs to be aware of external threats and realize that they pose the most targeted threat to operations. However, it was great seeing that issues revolving around the integration of IT and OT is accurately seen as a concern. Architecting and maintaining the OT network correctly to include safe and segmented integration, structuring such as the Purdue model, and ultimately reducing the risks associated with IT/OT convergence will go a long way for the security of the environment. The type of efforts required to reduce the risk of IT/OT convergence is also the same foundational efforts that help identify, respond, and learn from external threats and threat vectors.


  1. Lack of Visibility is Far Reaching

A significant portion of the group, 48.8%, stated that they simple did not have visibility into their environment. This could mean a number of things to include IT and OT not having visibility into each other’s processes and environment, lack of understanding of the networked environment, inability to collect data such as network traffic or logs, and a lack of a plan to pull together all stakeholders when appropriate. Each of these has been observed and continually documented as problems in the ICS community. What is interesting about this single metric though is that it impacts most of the other metrics. For example, respondents who do not have visibility into their environment will not be able to fully identify threats in their environment; 48.8% stated that they were not aware of any infiltration or infection of their control systems. Additionally, when a breach occurs it is difficult to respond correctly without visibility; 34% of the participants who had identified breaches stated that they had been breached multiple times in the last 12 months.

Takeaways: Nearly half of the respondents to the survey indicated that they did not have visibility into the environments. This makes it incredibly difficult to know if they have been impacted by breaches. It also makes it difficult to scope a threat and respond appropriately. I would bet that a significant portion of those participants who indicated they were breached multiple times had links between the breaches that they were unaware of due to a lack of visibility. Re-infections that occur due to not fully cleaning up after a breach are common in the IT and OT communities. ICS community members need to ensure that they are developing plans to increase their visibility. That means including all stakeholders (in both IT and OT), ensuring that at least sampling from the environment can be taken in the form of logs and network traffic, and talking with vendors to plan better visibility into system upgrades and refreshes. For example, a mirrored port on a network switch is a great resource to gain invaluable network traffic data from the OT environment that can help identify threats and reduce time and cost of incident response.

Follow on: To help with the discussion of visibility into the environment I will post two entries to the SANS ICS blog in the upcoming weeks. They will be focused on two of the beginning labs in SANS ICS515 — Active Defense and Incident Response. The first will cover using Mandiant’s free incident response tool: Redline and how to use it in an ICS to gather critical data. The second will cover using some basic features in Wireshark to sample network traffic and identify abnormalities.

Final Thoughts

I was very impressed with the participants of the SANS survey. Their inputs help give a better understanding into the community and its challenges. While the takeaways above focus on areas for improvement it is easy to look at the past few years and realize that security is increasing overall. Security awareness, trained security professionals, and community openness are all increasing. We have a long way to go in the community but we are getting better. However, there are many actions that can and should be taken today to drastically help security. First, we must be more open with data and willing to participate in spot checks, like surveys, on the community. Secondly, wherever there is a lack of a plan forward, such as IT/OT convergence strategies, the appropriate stakeholders need to meet and discuss with the intent to act. Thirdly, incidents are happening whether or not the community is ready for it. Appropriate visibility into the environments we rely on, incident response plans, and identified personnel to involve are all requirements. We can move the bar forward together.


his was first posted on the SANS ICS blog;

Originally appeared at RobertMLee.org

Author:

Robert M. Lee is a fellow in the Cybersecurity Initiative. He is Founder and CEO of the cybersecurity company Dragos, Inc., a SANS Institute course author and researcher, and a PhD candidate at Kings College London.