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24 Jan 2008

New IT security standards for US electricity industry

FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has approved eight new mandatory critical infrastructure protection (CIP) reliability standards developed by NERC, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, covering:
- Critical cyber asset identification (NERC standard CIP-002) - essentially inventory and risk assessment of critical information assets;
- Security management controls (CIP-003) - security policy and management structure, exceptions process etc.;
- Personnel and training (CIP-004) - personnel risk assessment, training and, of course, security awareness;
- Electronic security perimeters (CIP-005) - a 'crunchy outer shell' for networks;
- Physical security of critical cyber assets (CIP-006) - physical perimeter controls, card locks, processes, visitor logs etc.;
- Systems security management (CIP-007) - security testing and patching, controlled network services, antivirus, security monitoring and various other IT security controls including, I note, minimum 6 alphanumeric+punctuation character passwords with a lifetime of up to one year (!);
- Incident reporting and response planning (CIP-008) - an annually-reviewed incident response plan; and
- Recovery plans for critical cyber assets (CIP-009) - DR plans with at least annual exercises.

For completeness, CIP-001 covers sabotage reporting, the critical infrastructure equivalent of SB-1386 and similar requirements to report unauthorized credit card or personal data disclosures.

FERC's IT security standards are stronger that mere recommendations and will probably become fully mandatory when get-out clauses relating to business judgement are removed. In-scope companies should all have started work on this by now and have to be fully compliant by mid-2008 or mid-2009 depending on the type of company and the specific standards.

FERC did not go as far as to mandate NIST's SP800-series security standards, however, excellent though they are, nor indeed international standards such as ISO/IEC 27002. The stated reason was not to delay implementation. While I applaud their haste to beef up infrastructure security, it's a shame to ignore the large existing body of work on information security from the likes of NIST, ANSI, BSI, ISO, IEC and others. Arguably there is a need for specific security standards covering SCADA (Supervisory Controls And Data Acquisition) systems, but the electricity industry is not pure SCADA by a long shot: there are conventional systems, many running Microsoft Windows and various UNIX/Linux variants, and TCP/IP networks all over the place, and security architecture, operations and management issues are basically the same as for any other industry. [I guess adopting existing standards would put a posse of electricity industry security consultants out of jobs but IMHO they are better deployed implementing security standards than creating new ones.]

Looking over the lit of bullets above, it is not hard to align FERC's advice with ISO/IEC 27002 ... whereupon gaps such as compliance stand out. FERC evidently intends to assess or audit the utilities' security against the standards but there's more to compliance than formal assessments/audits. Electricity companies should have suitable governance structures and processes in place to ensure compliance with their internal security requirements (policies, standards, guidelines and procedures) and with legal obligations unrelated to FERC (e.g. software license compliance plus other intellectual property issues, SOX and protection of Personally Identifiable Information) along with compliance by their suppliers and business partners. There are solid commercial drivers for information security in the electricity industry, quite separate from the critical infrastructure protection angle. Surely FERC could leverage this to their advantage?

The standard on DR is also notable for the absence of any advice on contingency planning and business continuity. I would have thought that 'keeping the light on' is absolutely number 1 top priority for the electricity industry, therefore resilience is more important than recovery. Perhaps this is so ingrained that it is taken as read but I'm surprised by the omission.

By the way, I also couldn't help but notice that "Facilities regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission" are explicitly excluded from the scope of the standards. I trust the nukes have their own, strong, rigorous, comprehensive cyber security standards ... they do, don't they?

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