NIST releases cybersecurity guidelines for smart grid

Guidelines are a good step forward, but they focus only on securing individual devices, not on tightening security for how different parts of the system will be connected, experts say.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology released on Sept. 2 guidelines utilities should follow to secure devices on the nation's developing smart grid, but they do little to ensure integrators consider security when combining devices systemwide, experts said.

The three-volume set of guidelines for smart grid cybersecurity strategies focuses on prevention, detection, response and recovery, according to the NIST Smart Grid Cybersecurity Strategy and Requirements' Internal Report 7628. The guidelines include 189 security criteria that are applicable either to the entire smart grid, or to particular parts of the system that businesses and organizations can use to prevent cyberattacks, infiltration of malicious code, and errors that can spread among suppliers and cause widespread electrical outages.

"I view these [guidelines] as the foundational building blocks for how you secure the smart grid," said Marianne Swanson, head of the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel's cybersecurity working group at NIST. "From a very high level, they set the stage for what you need to think about when building the components. Should I use encryption? How do I authenticate? How do I ensure good password controls?"

The smart grid will use two-way communication systems to better monitor use to lower energy consumption.

The guidelines will assist companies managing the smart grid and building the individual parts of the system, including meter vendors and the software developers, Swanson said. They compliment the NIST Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability Standards, which proposed requirements for developing the smart electric grid.

The guidelines combined standards from NIST's Special Publication 800-53, Recommended Security Controls for Federal Information Systems and Organizations, with standards from the Homeland Security Department and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. on protecting the critical infrastructure from cyberattack.

Although the guidelines are a significant step in securing the smart grid, they don't fully address potential vulnerabilities that can emerge when different vendors integrate their product offerings, said Michael Assante, president and chief executive officer of the National Board of Information Security Examiners.

"The approach is focused on the device level, which is a good starting point for any standard," Assante said. "But where is the guidance for the integrators? How do you speak to an IBM, who eventually will become a big force in the smart grid and is already developing comprehensive solutions? If we're going to do all this, we need key design principles to promote security in holistic solutions."

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, said the third report in the series presents bottom-up security analysis, which is the most important element of the volume. It provides recommendations for addressing known vulnerabilities in computer systems. The problem, he said, is the information is buried.

"You have to measure your ability to protect -- that's the place to begin," he said. "But there is so much else in [the report] that might accidentally cause people to not focus on that most important piece.

"When you ask people to do everything, they'll actually do nothing," he added. "If NIST doesn't take responsibility for prioritizing what [organizations need to do to secure the smart grid], they're throwing it over the wall to the people who don't claim to understand."