Monday, February 3, 2014

S4 Takeaway: Differences between North America and Europe

I've had a week now to reflect on my experience at Digital Bond's 2014 S4 conference and compare it to others I had last quarter. I spent almost all of Q4 2013 on the road with customers and at conferences, both in North America and Europe. While it is unfair to paint either region with one brush, I do see broad differences in the level of understanding of industrial cybersecurity issues.

For example, in North America, I rarely have to explain why cybersecurity is important to industrial sites. I am often asked to relate what the latest developments are, how they fit into the overall risk and solution picture, and how various debates in the industrial control system (ICS) security field are evolving. I also tend to see people working to understand how the latest developments fit into their understanding, and deciding what these developments suggest as to how organizations need to evolve their security programs.

Compare that with Europe, where interactions with representatives of critical infrastructure owners and operators tend to be more challenging. Operations teams will often say that security is an IT problem. However, IT is busy deploying privacy-focused security technologies on operational and control system networks with limited success. Both groups struggle to see how state-of-the-practice OT security technology, like Unidirectional Gateways, fit in their IT-style integrated systems and IT security programs. The widely known, very effective techniques used to break into IT-style networks are a risk Europeans tend to discount.

In hindsight, my experience at S4 really highlighted these differences. The programs and discussions were all about control systems and issues and solutions specific to them. For example, I'd been hearing about the DNP3 news second-hand, and was really looking forward to Chris Sistrunk's presentation of his and Adam Crain's work. "Ahh," I thought, "they used a fuzzer! And against master stations, not remote terminal units. Of course they found vulnerabilities – good for them! More work like that needs to be done." And then there was the "risk-based" debate regarding the NIST cybersecurity framework, which crystallized the understanding that cyber risk assessment really does need to be different for critical infrastructure sites versus other kinds of industrial sites.

To be fair, there are other large (by ICS cybersecurity standards) and high-quality events on the slate every year in North America – NERC's GridSecCon, the SANS SCADA events, the ACS Cyber Security Conference and the DHS ICSJWG events all spring to mind. Many Europeans attend and contribute to these events and to S4 – the real leaders in Europe are no slackers. But S4 seems to be where the world's technical leaders get together to argue things out. Differences between experts remain when the day is over, of course, but at least everyone goes away armed with the latest data and counter-arguments.

Admittedly, my experience in Europe is limited. I've only just started attending events and visiting European customers, and there is a spectrum of sophistication in a region this large and diverse. For example, one meeting I had with senior government and industry leaders in the UK earlier this year was impressive. I did not have to explain to them why security was important or how control systems were different – they were the ones asking me the hard questions, testing my answers and seeing how my information fit into their understandings and plans.

On average though, I have the impression that there is more awareness-level work to do in Europe than there is in North America. Look for greater Waterfall participation in European industrial cyber-security events, as well as standards, guidance and research efforts.

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