Sunday, October 15, 2017

Why do we need Mandatory Cyber Regulations?

I have more than a few times talked with someone from a large utility who assures me “We really believe in cyber security. We don’t need NERC CIP because we would do all of that anyway.” Both of these sentences have always struck me as strange.

To take the first sentence, when I hear it I always think (but never say!) “I’m really glad you believe in cyber security; that’s good news. Let me go out on a limb and guess that you also really believe in motherhood, apple pie and the Fourth of July.” In other words, talk is cheap. I’ve never heard anyone say “We don’t believe in cyber security at all.” Although some organizations have said so with their actions.

Now let’s look at the second sentence. When someone says that, I usually think (and sometimes say) “Oh, really? You mean that, if you didn’t have to comply with NERC CIP, you would still take great pains to document that – as required by CIP-007 R2.2 - every 35 days you have checked with the patch source for every piece of software installed on a component of a Medium or High impact BES Cyber System or a Protected Cyber Asset to see if there is a new security patch available – even if that vendor has never released a security patch and probably never will? Would you really do this if you weren’t obligated to by CIP?”

Of course they wouldn’t. While some documentation is obviously required as a good security practice, this – and a number of other documentation requirements of CIP – does very little to advance security. Indeed it detracts from it, since if you’re spending your time documenting something like this, you’re taking away time you could spend actually improving security in a way that isn’t required by CIP, such as combating phishing or ransomware (although I’m sure all NERC entities are putting resources into these two threats as well. But since these are IMHO the two biggest cyber threats today, it’s not an exaggeration to say that almost any amount spent combating them isn’t enough).

But let’s leave the question of compliance documentation aside; I’ve already discussed it in another post. Is the second sentence really true? Are there electric utilities or IPPs that would spend as much on cyber security in the absence of NERC CIP as they do in its presence? I’m sure there are a few that would, but for the majority of NERC entities I’m also sure the answer to this question is no. Mandatory requirements (especially if accompanied by potentially huge penalties for non-compliance) are always going to be funded first, even if other non-required areas of cyber security might in some cases deserve more funding, ahead of at least some CIP requirements. And strict logic indicates that it is inevitable that the level of funding for such non-required threats has to be less than it would be in the absence of mandatory cyber requirements.

At the September NERC CIPC meeting in Quebec City, a good discussion broke out (sparked by a presentation by Tobias Whitney of NERC) about getting money for cyber security projects. A couple participants said that they have more than once advocated for a request for funding for security projects not strictly required by CIP by saying that the expenditure would “help CIP compliance”. And lo and behold, the doors to the bank vault were flung open. However, if those three magic words hadn’t been uttered (like sprinkling pixie dust), those projects probably wouldn’t have been approved. So this is the main reason why the electric power industry needs mandatory cyber regulations: Without them, there would be a much lower overall level of funding for cyber security.

You may now ask “So why are you always complaining about NERC CIP? If it’s getting the industry much more funding for cyber projects, it must be making it more secure.” I agree that CIP has made the industry much more secure than it would be otherwise (see this post for more on this topic). However, I think the cost of compliance with the current CIP standards regime outweighs the benefits by a good margin – and that cost is increasing as new standards like CIP-012 and CIP-013 come online. So the question is how to write a standard that a) is mandatory, but b) doesn’t force the entity to invest a lot of time and effort in activities that don’t benefit cyber security very much (and indeed, what is needed is a standard that “forces” the entity to do what they would otherwise do with adequate funding for cyber security, but no mandatory standards).

I believe that these two criteria could be met by a new set of CIP standards - and a compliance regime to go with them - that would 1) be objectives-based, 2) be threat-based, 3) be risk-based and 4) provide a list of threats to address that would be subject to frequent updates by some central group of representatives of NERC entities. CIP-013 actually comes close to this (actually just the first three, but 3 of 4 ain’t bad!), although since I don’t think it can be audited under the current NERC CMEP and RoP, it can’t really be called a “mandatory” standard – except for the six items listed in R1.2. But even not being mandatory, I think there will be lots of pressure on NERC entities to do the right thing and do their best to comply with CIP-013.

The views and opinions expressed here are my own and don’t necessarily represent the views or opinions of Deloitte.

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