Grid security teeters on edge

Security technology used by U.S. electric utilities has flaws and could increase the odds of computer intrusions or sabotage, the chairman of an industry standards group warns.


ISS SourceSecurity technology used by U.S. electric utilities has flaws and could increase the odds of computer intrusions or sabotage, the chairman of an industry standards group warns.

Jesse Hurley, co-chair of the North American Energy Standards Board’s (NAESB) Critical Infrastructure Committee, said the mechanism for creating digital signatures for authentication is insufficiently secure because not enough going on to verify identities and some companies are attempting to weaken standards to fit their business models.

“These certificates protect access to control systems,” Hurley said. “They protect access to a $400 billion market. They protect access to trading systems. They also protect access to machines that do things like turn generators off. If you issue a fraudulent certificate or you’re lax… the consequences could be disastrous.” The U.S. electrical grid has already become a target of cyber attacks, with Chinese and Russian hackers reportedly penetrating it over the Internet.

NAESB scheduled a committee vote to decide when the digital certificates it authorizes should expire. Because even carefully designed algorithms may have flaws attackers will find over time, which happened with the MD5 algorithm in 1995 and the SHA-1 algorithm in 2005. This is why they feel a shorter period is far more secure.

This debate over critical infrastructure security comes as the U.S. Senate prepares to debate a Democrat-backed bill that would give Homeland Security additional authority to regulate cyber security practices for critical infrastructure. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he hopes to bring the bill to the floor at the earliest possible date. House Republicans back a competing bill called CISPA; senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) drafted a third option they’re proposing as a compromise.

Although the NAESB standards body is an industry organization, the federal government routinely adopts its standards as regulations, giving them the force of law. The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), for instance, adopted the group’s 2008 digital signature standard, which NAESB is updating to reflect technological advances.

Two companies, Open Access Technology International (OATI) and GlobalSign, which the NAESB authorized to issue digital certificates to the industry, argue a 30-year expiration for digital certificates is fine.

“OATI doesn’t see a problem with 30 years from a security standpoint,” said Patrick Tronnier, OATI’s principal security architect, on a NAESB conference call late last month. Tronnier responded to complaints about weakened security by saying it would cause too much “disruption” to choose a short period.

Hurley, the chief executive of Reno, Nevada-based cyber security and certificate authority firm Shift Systems, dismissed that argument as self-interest on the part of OATI, saying “I’d be advocating for something smaller like 10 or 5 (years) but that’s not on the table at the moment.”

Rae McQuade, president of NAESB, said it’s unclear whether the revised digital certificate standard will apply to Web interfaces or embedded SCADA systems — which directly control power and gas transmission — as well.

Craig Cano, a spokesman for FERC, the government agency, said they have adopted the NAESB standards relating to digital signatures and public key infrastructure. Cano said the standards apply to any public utility that operates facilities used for the transmission of electric energy, any public utility that sells electric energy at wholesale prices, and some non-public utilities as well.

Digital certificates are documents that use a cryptographic signature for authentication, which can in turn proves a person is who he claims to be, or computer code is trusted and can be executed. Stuxnet used valid digital signatures issued by reputable companies, apparently tricked by the U.S. government, to bypass anti-virus applications and attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

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