Over the last few years, there has been an increased effort to modernize the U.S. electric grid. Building a “Smart Grid” has been central in the effort to help utilities better manage their resources, minimize power outages and reduce energy consumption. However, adding more electronic devices and sensors to the grid’s network has made it a prime target of cyberattacks, like Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, which if successful, could cause wide-spread disruption of services affecting many other sectors.
According to a recent ICS-CERT incident response from The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), an organization within the Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, of the 257 reported incidents ICS-CERT collected in 2013, 56 percent, or 151 incidents, occurred in the energy sector, which exceeded all incidents reported in the other sectors combined. Keep in mind that because reporting of cyber incidents is done on a voluntary basis, ICS-CERT estimates that many more incidents occurred but were not reported.
As new, advanced cyberattacks on public utilities are expected to grow in frequency, what should these organizations be doing to prepare? Below are recommendations for a new approach to cybersecurity for critical infrastructure based on recent research from Verisign iDefense Security Intelligence Services:
- Build security solutions into the front-end design: It is important that the energy sector build security solutions into the front-end design, manufacturing and deployment of Smart Grid systems and components. And as the roll out of the Smart Grid continues to take place, the energy sector will need to address legacy equipment issues and access control usage, while continuing to tighten its security policies and procedures.
- Examine the use of remote connections: While threat mitigation is an ongoing concern, organizations managing critical infrastructure will also need to examine the use of remote connections to their enterprises and determine how to best manage user access from the perspective of the least-privilege principle for access control.
- Frequently monitor for vulnerabilities and have a mitigation plan in place: The energy sector should frequently monitor their systems and networks for vulnerabilities, and embrace a full-scope risk management program for both the Information Technology (IT) and Industrial Control Systems (ICS) sides of the house. This will be critical for the success of their security programs.
- Protect availability of critical systems: It is imperative that public utilities have a multilayered mitigation strategy in place to restore services quickly in the event of a DDoS attack. Due to the critical nature of smart grid networks, a hybrid approach to DDoS mitigation, which includes a dedicated appliance on the network, layered with a cloud-based DDoS solution to provide real-time adaptive mitigation that protects against both high-volume and targeted application-level DDoS attacks, may provide the most comprehensive protection.
- Invest in third-party expertise: Working with third-party security providers and experts can provide energy/utility companies with powerful tools to combat today’s cybersecurity risks as well as help them develop advanced threat intelligence capabilities to proactively protect their assets. Given what is at stake, all energy companies should consider making this investment.