Cyber security: Solve legacy issues through user groups

Practical advice on leveraging user groups to solve protection issues in legacy control systems.


Last month we promised some positive developments in the cyber security arena. The same tools that are helping make new control and SCADA systems more secure from the start can also help with legacy equipment. Alan Paller, research director for the SANS Institute , offers these specific suggestions.

One of the most powerful security tools of the last few years is neither hardware nor software. It’s a list of specifications originally drawn up by the state of New York to help define what a system has to have to be considered adequately protected from malware and hackers. This Cyber Security Procurement Language for Control Systems has been expanded by Idaho National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the CISO of New York State, and SANS Institute. It is available for download at no charge and will be updated in the future to expand areas of coverage.

While this document was intended originally to assist companies buying new systems, some legacy users found that it was also very helpful for taking inventory of existing platforms. This application is particularly exciting and offers a broad range of uses, but how do you put it to work?

Paller advises that the process takes two steps.

First, compare your existing system to the procurement language. “You need to do a mapping of the procurement specifications against your current situation,” Paller says. “The procurement spec says,‘When you order it, make sure it does this.’ Right now you aren’t sure if your system does it or not. You have to find out.”

Second, implement the corrections. Your company can undertake both of these actions yourself or hire an outside contractor to do it for you. However, that is an expensive approach.

A more economical method is to ask the vendor who built the system originally to do both these for you. If you can make the request together with other companies that use the same platform, the costs can be spread out. Paller advises, “You can ask your vendor,‘Do you do these things? Give us a mapping.’ Or you can work together with the other owners of that same set of devices and software. The key is for the vendor to do the work across its customer base for all the things that are common. The solution won’t be 100%, because users customize these systems, but it can be 80%. The individual end user is only responsible for the last 20% that is special to that company.”

This message is particularly important this time of the year as automation companies begin the user group season. Finding other customers to join you as you approach your original vendor will give additional clout to your request, and user group meetings are an excellent opportunity for you to find like minded users. Tell your steering committee members that you want this on the program. Everyone benefits from more secure systems and lower costs.

Paller observes, “When you say,‘What are we going to do about it?’ there really isn’t any other path. You have to work together to get the price down to a rational level. The only alternative is to hire one of these cyber security SWAT teams, but there are so few in the world that understand the underlying systems and that you can trust. The user group is much better than having individual companies try and do it themselves. This is a place where they can save everybody a lot of money.”

This is already happening in other parts of the world, according to Paller. “The Europeans are moving much faster. We were shocked in the last two or three weeks to hear what they are doing with the procurement specs. The governments are writing letters to vendors with systems in the country saying‘Which of these things have you implemented and which haven’t you implemented?’ They sense the risk more than the U.S. does. Of course it doesn’t matter where it starts, because it will get picked up everywhere once we have a couple of models.”

—Peter Welander, process industries editor, ,
Process & Advanced Control Monthly
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