The city of Rowlett, Texas, experienced an unauthorized wastewater ...
A protective, cost-effective approach to risk mitigation
Massive cybersecurity breaches make headlines on a regular basis. These constant reminders of potential system vulnerabilities can be particularly troublesome to those charged with safeguarding the public’s water supply.
With limited staffs and budgets, utilities often must postpone comprehensive upgrades, evolve their industrial control systems (ICS) and IT infrastructure slowly, and rely on external expertise.
Still, water utilities can take steps now to better mitigate risk through a proactive approach that extends beyond regulatory compliance—and makes ICS security part of the utility master plan.
Change the Mind-Set
Utilities tend to view any initiative related to ICS and IT as a “project.” And virtually all have taken a project approach to implement passive cyber defenses, such as firewalls and email filters. But when it comes to cybersecurity, a “set-it-and-forget-it” project mentality can be dangerously limiting.
In today’s world, cyber threats continually are evolving and escalating—and can impact every aspect of a utility. To be truly effective, cybersecurity must be based on an agile and active defense strategy that extends through every project in parallel with all business operations.
It is time to change the mind-set: Cybersecurity is an ongoing “process,” not a project.
Lay the Foundation
For some water utilities—which have a high volume of critical assets, plus complicated governance—the scope of an ICS security program can be daunting.
However, regardless of infrastructure size or complexity, all utilities face similar challenges. And all can deploy a common, proven methodology to mitigate risk.
That methodology must:
Get Executive Buy-In
Identifying the right team to support and execute this methodology is critical. To be effective, this team must be endorsed at the executive level—and include expertise encompassing both the ICS and business-level networks.
Ideally, this team will be charged with formalizing and executing the policies and procedures that will guide the utility on cybersecurity issues for years to come.
Set Strategic Priorities
Assessments are the starting point for any cybersecurity program. Through an assessment, a utility can determine what is “normal” from the standpoint of data entering and leaving the system. This is a crucial first step to identifying abnormalities and potential security events.
In addition, an assessment evaluates a utility’s security practice architecture and its ability to protect ICS assets.
Effective security assessments also extend beyond the technology deployed and take into account existing policies, procedures and typical behavior.
At minimum, an assessment should include:
The outcome of any assessment is a prioritized list of mitigation activities.
Align Investment With the Master Plan
With prioritized mitigation steps in hand, a utility is ready to implement a cybersecurity program. However, justifying funding often is fraught with challenges.
First, the benefits of a cybersecurity program are usually invisible and can only be tracked through metrics. It is easier to justify additional costs or to divert funds for improvements that directly impact water delivery or quality.
In addition, cybersecurity is not a one-time expenditure. It is a commitment that commands vigilance and an ongoing investment in people, process and technology.
Due to these factors, aligning critical security controls investment closely with the utility master plan is the most effective, publicly palatable and fiscally responsible approach.
Ways to Align
While not an exhaustive list, here are some specific ways a utility can implement a strategic, life-cycle approach to cybersecurity investments:
Positioned for the Future
On the surface, water systems may not appear very different from the day they were commissioned. But chances are, the inner workings of these systems have radically changed. Often, there is a tremendous intermixing of old and new products—and various creative methods to exchange information.
Within this environment, understanding even the current system security baseline can be a challenge. However, the need to address cybersecurity issues has never been greater.
By aligning critical security controls investment with the master plan, utilities are well positioned to identify system vulnerabilities and undertake essential mitigation steps—both now and in the future.