There has been a lot of talk in NERC circles lately about guidance for the CIP standards. This is largely driven by NERC’s recent efforts to “clarify” the status of the many types of guidance they have put out about CIP v5 and v6, and now CIP-013. I would like to give your my own account of those guidance efforts.
In the long-ago days of CIP v3, concern began to grow about inconsistency between auditors and between regions in the interpretation of the CIP requirements. This led to NERC’s creating two series of documents: Compliance Application Notices (CANs) and Compliance Application Reports (CARs). NERC thought – along with most of the industry, to be sure – that simply having NERC state its opinion on certain controversial topics would lead the regional auditors to put aside their differences and all start singing from the same page in the hymnal.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out too well for the CANs and CARs. They were attacked roundly from many sides, and most importantly the auditors saw no reason to feel bound by what these documents said. After all, where was the basis for them in the NERC Rules of Procedure? The answer is “Nowhere”. This led to most, although not all, of the CANs and CARs being withdrawn (a few of the less controversial ones remain technically in force).
This was considered to be a good learning experience for NERC. People said, “Well, at least NERC will make sure that the next CIP version (which was expected to be numbered v4 at the time) doesn’t have these ambiguities, so there will be no need for these extraordinary measures in the future.” However, I would say that many people in the NERC community today would gladly exchange the huge level of uncertainty in CIP v5 and v6 with the much more modest level of uncertainty in CIP v3 (and coming soon to a NERC Regional Entity near you: CIP-013!). Yes, those were the days…
When FERC issued their Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR) in April 2013, which said they intended to approve CIP v5 (and would send CIP v4, which had been approved for implementation in April 2014, to sleep with the fishes), I decided to write a series of posts on v5.
What I found was disturbing. I started out with CIP-002, since that is the first standard. I tried to figure out exactly what CIP-002 R1 (with Attachment 1) required the entity to do. And I literally came to a dead end: The logic broke down so completely that there was no way to go forward without taking a big leap of faith. I went on to write probably 100-150 more posts on problems with CIP v5 over the next 2-3 years and cataloged a wide range of problems, especially having to do with CIP-002 and its associated definitions.
At this point I started wondering how these problems could be fixed. My first hope was for FERC – when they actually approved v5 – to simultaneously order NERC to fix the problems, or at least the really fundamental ones in CIP-002-5.1 R1 (since that is the foundation of the rest of the current CIP standards).
However, when FERC approved CIP v5 in Order 791 in November 2013, they broke my heart by not telling NERC to address any of these problems. And the next month, at a NERC CIPC meeting in Atlanta, I asked a highly-placed NERC staff member whether NERC would of its own accord include this problem in the Standards Authorization Request (SAR) that would guide the drafting team for CIP v6[i]. His answer was as concise as possible: “No”.
This was a very disappointing answer, since I believed it meant there was now no way to truly fix the problems with CIP v5. I believed this (and still do!) because the NERC Rules of Procedure allow no other mechanism to address problems with a standard than to write a SAR and convene a Standards Drafting Team to revise the standards. Yes, this is a very time consuming process – especially given the magnitude of the problems in CIP v5 – but it is the only way to fix problems, rather than simply attempt to paper them over.
However, life goes on. The fact that there were a lot of problems with CIP v5 didn’t mean that NERC entities didn’t have to comply on April 1, 2016 (the original compliance date) – they still had to do that. My attention then turned to the next question: What would NERC do to at least mitigate these interpretation problems? I first asked this question in this post, and you could say that each of the next 100 posts asked the same question.
I won’t reiterate for you all the many twists and turns of NERC’s admittedly well-intended efforts to provide guidance on complying with CIP v5. At first the Guidelines and Technical Basis were going to do the trick, then the RSAWs, then the CIP v5 Implementation Study, then the FAQs, then the Lessons Learned, and finally the Memoranda (I’m probably missing three or four things in this list and I know they overlapped, so the order isn’t at all hard and fast).
Each of these different efforts was touted by NERC at one point as being the final answer to the ambiguities of CIP v5, yet each of them was ultimately abandoned. What finally brought this process to an end was the Memoranda, which caused huge contention and were withdrawn in spectacular fashion at a meeting on July 1, 2015.
At that point, NERC seemed to me to have raised the white flag and admitted that there was no definitive way – other than by writing a SAR and convening a new SDT – to address problems with standards; they said they would do exactly this (and that team is still working today). They also seemed to be pointing toward a more ecumenical guidance process where other groups could also provide guidance and NERC would publish those documents that it believed had merit. And here’s the kicker: It seemed they were finally admitting that all credible guidance, from whatever source, should be given consideration by both entities and auditors.
But there was another implication to what NERC said: that in the case of ambiguity, it is ultimately up to the entity to decide what the CIP v5 requirements and definitions mean. Because if a) the standards are ambiguous (which NERC admitted) and b) NERC can’t provide definitive guidance (by which I mean guidance that the auditors are bound to follow in their audits), then there really is no 100% right or wrong way to comply with a CIP requirement.
And here’s where “Roll your own” comes in. In September 2014, I wrote the first in what turned out to be a series of posts on how NERC entities were dealing with ambiguity in CIP v5. That post described how one entity had decided they couldn’t wait for NERC to come out with definitive guidance on v5 – specifically, on what “programmable” means in the Cyber Asset definition – and had simply developed their own guidance. Just as importantly, they had documented what they had done. The person I talked with argued that, if an auditor three years from now disagrees with the definition they came up with, they will simply show him or her the documentation of how they arrived at this definition, including the fact that they reviewed all available guidance before doing this. There is simply no way the auditor can assess a potential violation (or at least make it hold up after they have assessed it), given that the requirement is ambiguous.
This was a turning point for me, because in the almost three years since I wrote that post it has now become completely clear to me, as well as almost all of the rest of the NERC community (including entities and auditors), that this is the only way to comply with CIP v5 and v6: You simply have to get out your plywood and nails and patch over whatever logical chasms you come across, so that you can cross them and get on with compliance. But the key is documenting what you did; I hope you all did that (at least if you have High or Medium impact assets), but even if you didn’t, it’s not too late to do so.
Since July 2015, NERC has more or less adhered to what they said that month. They have convened an SDT to address at least some of the problems with CIP v5[ii], and they have moved to a guidance framework that allows a number of organizations to develop guidance and have it “approved” by NERC. However, there is one way in which NERC seems to be relapsing into its old mindset: It once again seems to believe that it can develop guidance (or approve particular guidance developed by others) that is better than anybody else’s guidance, and therefore will be given some sort of “priority” by the auditors when they audit. I believe the current idea is that “implementation guidance” written by the SDT that developed a standard should and will be given extra attention, both by entities and auditors.
But don’t believe it. Let me repeat, in case you weren’t paying attention earlier:
- No CIP guidance of any kind, whether written by a NERC SDT, the NERC Board of Trustees, Thomas Jefferson, Baha'u'llah, Saint Paul, or the Dalai Lama, has any greater validity than any other guidance. In particular, the auditors aren’t bound to follow any particular guidance.
- However, you should consider all available guidance as you do the only thing you can do when faced with an ambiguous requirement or missing definition: decide for yourself the best approach, and document how you came to that conclusion (for an alternative and more far-reaching approach than “Roll your own”, see this 2014 post about an article by Lew Folkerth of RF).
Of course, now we have CIP-013 coming up, and that presents a whole different set of guidance issues…
The views and opinions expressed here are my own and don’t necessarily represent the views or opinions of Deloitte.
[i] The v6 SAR only included the four things FERC had mandated in Order 791. None of them were fixes to the numerous wording problems I and others had found in v5 thus far.
[ii] Although, as I will say in an upcoming post, I don’t believe that SDT will ever address everything that is on its plate. And I also don’t think, absent new FERC orders, there will be any further changes or updates in NERC CIP – unless the standards are completely rewritten from scratch.