How Vulnerable Is the Grid Against Cyber Attacks?
Actually how secure is the grid?
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In March this year, a US power company fell victim to a "cyber event" that interfered with operations. The unnamed company provides power and energy to customers across Los Angeles, California; Salt Lake County, Utah; and Converse County, Wyoming. Fortunately, according to the Department of Energy (DOE), the event "did not impact generation, the reliability of the grid or cause any customer outages." However, the denial-of-service attack was significant enough for the utility to file an electric disturbance report with DOE — the same forms reserved for major interruptions like storms, physical attacks or fuel shortages. It's unclear whether this constituted an actual attack, but it served as a reminder of the vulnerabilities of the grid.
What Is the Precedence for These Kinds of Attacks?
While utility grid attacks rarely succeed their potential to cause widespread chaos across homes, businesses and services are significant. The United States and Israel employed the first grid attack, Stuxnet, to destroy centrifuges in an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility in 2009.
Ukraine has been subject to two grid attacks. In December 2015, three Ukrainian electricity distribution companies were remotely accessed, taking control of their SCADA systems. Breakers were opened at 30 distribution substations in the capital city Kyiv and western Ivano-Frankivsk region, causing more than 200,000 consumers to lose power for six hours in winter, and workers had to control the substations and breakers manually.
A following 2016 attack hit a single substation. Reports in 2017 from ESETand Dragos identified CRASHOVERRIDE (alternately named Industroyer), as the malware framework used. Dragos at the time noted, " Dragos can also confirm that we are tracking the adversary group behind the attack as ELECTRUM and can assess with high confidence the group has direct ties to the Sandworm Team which targeted infrastructure companies in the United States and Europe in 2014 and Ukraine electric utilities in 2015."
I spoke to a number of cybersecurity experts including Phil Neray, VP of Industrial Cybersecurity for CyberX, who observed that in the recent cyber attack event, the threat actors did not directly attack the systems that control power generation and distribution for the electrical grid, but rather they disrupted the ability of utility operators to monitor the current status of those systems. The utility industry refers to this type of incident as 'loss of view.'
"If an attacker wanted to shut down parts of the grid, one of their first steps might be precisely this step, because it would leave utility operators blind to subsequent disruptive actions the attackers would take, such as switching relays off to halt the flow of electricity."
He compared this to Stuxnet in that the attackers performed a similar action whereby "they fooled the operators into thinking all was fine with their nuclear centrifuges when in fact they were being spun at very high rates in order to damage them."
Phil also shared that the threat actors compromised a networking appliance to cause loss of visibility: "We've seen attackers go after network devices in the past, such as in the VPNFilter attacks of 2018, which have been widely-attributed to Russian threat actors. In these attacks, threat actors similarly exploited unpatched vulnerabilities in network devices so they could spy on network traffic, steal credentials, and inject malicious code into the traffic in order to compromise endpoints. These appliances are relatively easy to attack because they are typically directly exposed to the Internet, are difficult to patch, and have no built-in anti-malware capabilities."
What Efforts Have Been Made So Far to Secure the Grid?
The cornerstone of cybersecurity for electric utilities is the NERC Critical Infrastructure Protection Standards. Phil states that their effectiveness is limited as they "have not been updated to include modern security controls such as continuous monitoring to detect suspicious or unauthorized activities in utility networks. Plus they rely on utilities to self-report incidents, which likely leads to under-reporting since reporting incidents can potentially lead to fines and shareholder lawsuits."
Regulators recently doled out a record $10M fine to a major US utility for multiple incidents of cyber negligence indicating an ad hoc, informal, inconsistent, chaotic approach to addressing the regulations, such as neglecting to revoke administrative passwords for employees that had been fired.
Disturbingly other verticals, such as oil & gas, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, and transportation, do not currently have any cyber regulations in place.
How Secure Actually Is the Grid?
The electricity grid's decentralization may, in fact, be its best security yet. According to Alex Held, white hat hacker and chief research and development officer at SecurityScorecard:
"While attacks on the grid are a real threat, the grid benefits from a lack of consolidation. There are so many different grids, network segments, technology providers, and utilities that a large-scale attack would be difficult to execute. We are much more likely to see attacks, with real impact, on smaller portions of the grid."
He believes that it is highly unlikely that attackers could take down the entire US power grid because it has been specifically designed to eliminate any single points of failure. Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine how determined nation-state attackers could target specific population regions to cause major disruption and chaos, as Russian threat actors did with the Ukrainian grid attacks of 2015 and 2016. "For example, disrupting power to the Wall Street area or Washington DC, in the middle of winter, would have a major economic and psychological impact on the population, with the potential of causing loss of human lives as well."
Where to From Here?
The problems in securing the grid seem to be easy in theory but difficult in practice. According to Andrew Howard, chief technology officer at Kudelski Security:
"The biggest deficit is legacy equipment. While new generation, distribution, and delivery technologies may be more secure and can take advantage of the latest security techniques, securing legacy equipment in the field is a significant challenge with few options. On top of that, replacing everything with more secure equipment is not a realistic option given the high costs for new deployment and implementation."
Alex agrees, detailing that while securing the grid is often focused on the replacement of vulnerable legacy systems with new embedded systems and IoT technologies,
"Unfortunately, many of the new technologies come with their own risks attached. For example, there is an effort to move away from older generation RDP/VNC protocols to manage thick client applications and migrate to HTTPS protocol and the older thick client apps have been retrofitted into new web applications. While the efforts so far appear to be with overhauling antiquated infrastructures and technologies, there appears to be an emerging vector of attack through exposed HTTPS applications that were previously unavailable."
There's nothing to suggest that cyber attacks against the grid are abating. Whether the current effort was a practice run or a proof of concept, or something more sinister is unknown but it's foreseeable that the challenges of securing the grid will remain a pain point for all utility, grid, and network providers.
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