3/8/2019
02:45 PM
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DHS: No Investigation Planned for Electrical Grid Incursions

The subtext to a panel discussion during RSA is that risks to national infrastructure are fraught with political considerations.



RSA CONFERENCE 2019 – San Francisco – Despite concrete evidence of Russian infiltration of the US electrical grid and acknowledgment of the hacking by the US government, no formal investigation is planned, according to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official who spoke here at this week's RSA Conference.

"[Our] worldwide threat assessment looks at threats and capabilities," said Bob Kolasky, director of the National Risk Management Center, which is part of DHS. The complexity of the malware like what attacked Ukraine's electrical grid "is still largely theoretical," he added. "We will look at what's going on, but we don't do technical investigations. We have some idea of the threat."

Pressed by an audience member about whether there was sufficient evidence and cause to investigate bad actors and vulnerabilities associated with the US electrical grid, Kolasky demurred. "We jump on planes when we're asked to jump on planes,” he said. "There's the reality of malware that [electrical grid operators] don't want on their systems."

Kolasky's comments were part of a panel discussion Monday night examining security challenges to critical infrastructure in the US. More than once, panelists invoked 9/11 and the many lessons learned around threat assessment, preparedness, and defense. Several also highlighted the ongoing challenges of getting multiple government entities to work together, share information, and decide who leads an investigation.

In other words, the politics of malware.

"From a threat perspective, we start with nation-states – China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran – and look at what they're interested in," Kolasky explained.

In general, he added, their intent is to advance their own industries and take out competitors. Russia, according to Kolasky, is most interested in undermining liberal democracy, whether it's elections, social media, or just sowing general contempt. "There are risks to information systems and information," he said. "Where does it become an issue, undermining the economy and the nation? That's the conversation we want to have."

The interlude over what might prompt the feds to mount a full-bore cybersecurity investigation was in contrast to the rest of the discussion, where panelists with long federal government resumés vigorously agreed plenty of progress has been made around information sharing among agencies and departments. They were also quick to add that plenty of challenges remain.

"9/11 was the bloody nose for us – what's happened in counter-terrorism is really the model for cybersecurity going forward," said Brig. Gen. Francis X. Taylor, who once served as undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS and was the first CSO at General Electric Co. Just as the feds learned to work with and share information with local police departments after the 2001 attacks, federal agencies and departments can do a better job of working with their state and local counterparts and private-sector security pros, he said.

Taylor advocated for more sharing of unclassified information; what's less clear is who manages that or what the sharing platform should be. "It takes a leader, and I think DHS is the right leader," he said, adding that information can't just be shared on a "need-to-know" basis – a common stalling tactic in the intelligence community. Information about cybersecurity needs to be always available, Taylor said.

Cybersecurity politics aren't limited to the feds; highly regulated industries like oil and gas are extra cautious about what they do, noted Suzanne Lemieuxmanager, midstream and industry operations, at the American Petroleum Institute, and another panelist. "Our companies are limited in what they can share with each other as competitors [operating] under antitrust restrictions," she explained.

Lemieux noted improvements for cybersecurity, such as the formation of the ONG information analysis center. API members share threats they see with other industries, like with electrical grid opportunities, because oil and gas companies recognize they're not the only targets.

"We also have partnerships with DHS, TSA, and others, but [sharing information] is just as much a challenge outside the government," Lemieux said. "We're trying to figure out what that model looks like."

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Terry Sweeney is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered technology, networking, and security for more than 20 years. He was part of the team that started Dark Reading and has been a contributor to The Washington Post, Crain's New York Business, Red Herring, ... View Full Bio

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