Addressing Security Gaps in the Energy Industry

Every industry has its own unique challenges related to information security. Financial services organizations bear the burden of preventing fraud. Manufacturing businesses have to protect their intellectual property and ensure that manufacturing processes remain resilient to attack. Meanwhile, health care organizations must keep sensitive personal information away from prying eyes.

Filling Glaring Security Gaps in the Energy Industry

The energy industry is doubly vulnerable to the challenges of maintaining a good information security program. From local electric membership corporations (EMCs) to national energy conglomerates and all the related entities in between, energy companies must keep sensitive information in check while ensuring that supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and related systems are not attacked and taken down. A breach of electricity, natural gas or related resources can introduce a whole different set of challenges that can have a tremendous and very personal impact on a large group of people.

Having worked with various types of businesses in the energy and utility sector — from EMCs to local municipalities, larger utilities boards and power generation companies — it’s obvious that IT professionals have a responsibility to uphold the traditional pillars of confidentiality, integrity and availability, more so than any other industry I’ve worked in.

Unlike many other industries, however, the resources at these energy organizations are often spread so thin that no single entity can take full charge of security. In fact, the security programs at these organizations are often some of the least mature out there. I frequently come across common low-hanging fruit such as:

  • Minimal security standards integrated into both systems and software development life cycles;
  • Inconsistent security testing or none at all, since some people don’t want to touch their critical systems and risk downtime;
  • Minimal security awareness and training efforts;
  • Dated operating systems and missing software patches on production networks, including critical geographic information systems environments and SCADA systems; and
  • Weak user account and password management, especially for service-related accounts on core business systems.

Empowering Security Leadership

There’s a lot of talk about cyber insurance in the energy industry, and rightly so. A good policy with broad coverage can certainly help lessen the impact of security events, but analysts at energy companies need more. Given what’s at stake, executives must dedicate more resources to information security-related initiatives in this sector. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean more money; bigger budgets sometimes enable companies to acquire products or services that do not truly fill business needs.

Instead, energy companies should hire better — or more — security leadership. Many organizations put system analysts, network administrators and chief information officers (CIOs) in charge of security, among dozens of other things. That’s a gaping hole waiting to be exploited. The same goes for more testing and analysis of security weaknesses. After all, you cannot secure what you don’t acknowledge or don’t know about.

Securing Moving Parts

There are, no doubt, outliers in the energy industry who have mastered security. Still, how long is it going to take before widespread energy sector attacks become commonplace, not unlike the breach that befell Ukraine’s power grid last year?

Sure, SCADA environments are generally well-secured. I have yet to come across one that was truly vulnerable to a real-world attack. But there are countless moving parts across the networks and information systems running this industry. While there are a lot of smart people working to improve security behind the scenes, they need better organization to get ahead of the enemies lurking in the shadows.

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Kevin Beaver

Independent Information Security Consultant

Kevin Beaver is an information security consultant, writer and professional speaker with Atlanta-based Principle Logic, LLC. With over 28 years of experience in IT and 22 years specializing in security, Kevin performs independent security assessments and helps businesses uncheck the boxes that keep creating a false sense of security. He has authored/co-authored 12 books on information security, including the best-selling "Hacking For Dummies" and "The Practical Guide to HIPAA Privacy and Security Compliance." In addition, Kevin is the creator of the Security On Wheels information security audiobooks and blog providing security learning for IT professionals on the go. You can learn more and link to Kevin's articles, blog posts, videos and more at his website, www.principlelogic.com.