Energy and utilities organizations face incredible pressure when it comes to securing their industrial control systems and networks. Unexpected downtime or power outages not only harms productivity but can also severely impact consumers, employees, and personnel. Reliable and secure remote access is imperative to keep operations up and running.

Recent news of Russian hackers invading hundreds of US utilities further implicates the importance of cybersecurity for industrial control systems (ICS).

For some extra insight on securing critical infrastructure systems, we sat down with Bomgar's VP of Security Solutions, Chris Stoneff:

Q: What threat level do these intrusions pose for the nation's power grid?

CS: Potentially severe depending on exactly how far in they have intruded. Sure there are backup systems, but our power providers have not treated these backup systems with any better security than the front line elements. We still regularly deal with customers who are leveraging unsecured telnet connections for passing credentials and controlling these systems. Consider multiple ways to go for an attack: blackout, brownout, overload. Some have access to other sensitive networks and can be used for further jump points to more “secure” areas.

Q: Is the threat offset by our infiltration of Russia's power grid?

CS: Absolutely not. The threat of mutually assured destruction means something with nuclear weapons, assuming the other side cares. For Power systems, not so much. Both sides feel they could withstand some kind of power disruption, at least long enough to launch other cyberattacks or create a military response if they so desire. This would further turn into a media war as both sides would indicate the other side struck first and were thus just in retaliation.

Q: What can utilities do to counter existing threat and to protect themselves from future ones?

CS: First, stop allowing our critical national infrastructure to be directly available to the internet (and thus the world). Second, stop leaving them with default passwords. There are plenty of mechanisms to constantly rotate these credentials in a secure method. Multi-factor authentication can help in some cases, though they have their own caveats. It is a combination of technologies that will help mitigate the risks.

Q: Has the federal government done anything to protect our infrastructure against these attacks?

CS: The federal government and its constituents have created all kinds of regulations, in some cases with steep penalties. However, the auditing to ensure compliance only tends to look at a handful of systems at a point in time. There needs to be a constant audit, both forward and backward in time to ensure policies were and are being followed. Moreover, every system needs to be examined, not just the ones that an administrator may choose to show an auditor who comes in once, maybe twice per year. In my opinion, they have done nothing effective and are so mired in process and checklists that if a solution that could address 90% of the needs of today was found, they would stop deployment because of the remaining 10% and end up with absolutely nothing. It is a scenario we have seen played out repeatedly across many verticals, especially the federal space.

Q: How sure can we be that these attacks are from Russia?

CS: We can’t. We can make an educated guess. We will even be right quite a bit. But that is the nature of digital information. This process is made that much easier when our CNI is still using unsecured protocols and will pass through translating devices (NATs and proxies and VPNs, etc.). It isn’t a fight we should give up on though. There are ways to make the problems easier to identify, ways to manage and mitigate the problems and the attacks, and ways to manage the relationships we have with our opponents in the first place.

For more insight into how Bomgar’s solutions can help energy and utility organizations secure their systems, check out this on demand webinar!