There has never been a power outage in the U.S. due to a cyber attack, but it happened in Ukraine over the Christmas holidays in 2015, and there have been attempts to breach U.S. power companies and hack the power grid.

In March, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an alert regarding a “multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors who targeted small commercial facilities’ networks where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing, and gained remote access into energy sector networks.” The alert went on to say that “After obtaining access, the Russian government cyber actors conducted network reconnaissance, moved laterally, and collected information pertaining to Industrial Control Systems (ICS).”

ICS security was back in the headlines last week, after the U.S. Department of Energy made public a report from August 2017 outlining a half-dozen “capability gaps” in the ability of the U.S. power sector to respond to a cyber attack.

For decades, the first line of cyber defense for the SCADA and other industrial control systems that run the nation’s power grid (and are also used by water utilities, oil and gas companies, and in transportation networks) was “security by isolation,” also known as air gapping. Because these systems were isolated both from the internet and internal enterprise networks, the logic went, they could not be hacked. This was sound logic in pre-internet days and even in the early days of the internet, but not in our hyper-connected, always-on, digital world. Now, the air gap is arguably the biggest myth of ICS security.

Most Air Gaps Have … Gaps

A truly air-gapped device is completely isolated from the outside world. In addition to no internet or intranet, the device is not accessible by Bluetooth, WiFi, or routable IPs. USB ports are locked down, and physical access is strictly controlled. Such a setup rarely exists in nature. Often, network audits discover “off-grid” remote connections the security staff didn’t know about. Usually, these were installed by employees or vendors for purposes of remote monitoring, repair, and troubleshooting, but they’re still outside connections.

Air Gapping Can Promote a False Sense of Security

Even if a system is properly air gapped, it is not impenetrable. As the Stuxnet attack proved, air gapping does not protect against insider threats. It also doesn’t protect against compromised software updates or hardware.

IT & OT Are Converging

In an always-on digital world where information technology (IT) is converging with operational technology (OT), air gapping poses a significant opportunity cost. Organizations that air gap their ICS and other OT systems are foregoing the valuable process data those systems generate: data that provides actionable intelligence that could be used to optimize equipment, improve safety, reduce environmental impacts, and cut costs. Because air gapped systems cannot be accessed remotely, repairs and routine maintenance are time-consuming and costly, and the lack of visibility into the system hampers your ability to respond to problems.

Instead of depending on air gapping, utilities and other organizations that use ICS or other operational technologies should adopt a layered approach to cyber security. A secure network architecture, combined with technologies that were specifically designed for ICS security purposes, provides much better cyber security while allowing organizations to take advantage of the IIoT and other innovative digital technologies.

Author's Bio: 

Michael Peters is the CEO of Lazarus Alliance, Inc., the Proactive Cyber Security™ firm, and Continuum GRC. He has served as an independent information security consultant, executive, researcher, and author. He is an internationally recognized and awarded security expert with years of IT and business leadership experience and many previous executive leadership positions.

He has contributed significantly to curriculum development for graduate degree programs in information security, advanced technology, cyberspace law, and privacy, and to industry standard professional certifications. He has been featured in many publications and broadcast media outlets as the “Go-to Guy” for executive leadership, information security, cyberspace law, and governance.