Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Security Risks of Remote Access and “Cloud Control Systems”

Today, Waterfall Security has the privilege of participating in a panel at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Technical Conference to discuss technical and operational issues in the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) Version 5 standards that the commission approved in late 2013. While Waterfall supports the improvements made in NERC CIP Version 5 over previous versions, we have expressed concerns over the cybersecurity of central turbine monitoring systems and other types of interactive remote access. 

Most turbine vendors require continuous monitoring of operations as a condition of hardware warrantees and hardware support contracts. Turbine vendors generally also require that sites allow occasional remote control of the turbines to correct vibration and other anomalies that might grow into catastrophic failures. This continuous monitoring and occasional remote access is most often enabled by an encrypted virtual private network (VPN) tunnel connected directly from the central monitoring site to the turbine owner’s control system network. This tunnel generally bypasses all of the owner’s corporate security technologies. This means is that there is only one layer of security between any vendor-monitored turbine anywhere in the world – even those turbines not under the jurisdiction of NERC CIP – and any vendor-monitored turbine in the U.S. Further, the remote access permissions that sites grant to vendor monitoring and diagnostics centers are much more intrusive than the Inter-Control Center Communications Protocol (ICCP) set point permissions that are typically granted by generating utilities to BES Control Centers. This makes no sense though. The CIP Version 5 standards require many technical security controls for BES Control Centers, but the central vendor sites are not held to the same standards. In fact, there are currently no technical security measures required of central vendor sites.

These concerns reflect a deeper issue around interactive remote access from any one site or laptop to a large number of similar targets in the Bulk Electric System (BES). In many utilities, there is a set of senior engineers’ laptops which are configured to with “occasional” on-demand access to any of hundreds of generating and substation/switching sites via VPN. In addition, many control system technology vendors are setting central “monitoring and diagnostics” sites for their products, not just turbine vendors. While individual remote access is a security problem, should an attacker take advantage of an opening, these risks are multiplied when one site or one laptop has access to hundreds of such VPN connections.

This issue is easily resolved through a combination of hardware-enforced Unidirectional Security Gateways configured with unidirectional Remote Screen View capabilities. Since the gateways enable one-way communication channels out of the control system, there is zero risk of a cyberattack getting back in. Vendors who need to fix anomalies can call the affected site and turn on screen sharing through Remote Screen View to see site screens and to direct engineering personnel to correct the problems.

Waterfall has formally submitted these comments in a prepared statement for the April 29 FERC Technical Conference. It is our hope that FERC and NERC will take a deeper look into the risks posed by central turbine monitoring and remote access systems, and will take the appropriate measures to mitigate these threats to the reliability of the BES.

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