Pentagon will require security standards for critical infrastructure networks

wang song/

Defense plan was in the works before Obama signed Tuesday’s cybersecurity executive order.

The first-ever cybersecurity certification requirements for private utilities and other vital infrastructure supporting the military are set to be released this fall and take effect within a year, Pentagon officials told Nextgov.

The Defense Department rules had been in the works before President Obama on Tuesday issued an executive order calling for the government to consider mandating such standards in federal contracts. Increasingly, owners of so-called critical infrastructure are asking the government for guidelines to fend off cyberattacks, but many are averse to computer security regulations. Pentagon leaders, however, have long raised alarms that the United States could be devastated by a cyber assault if businesses and government do not act now.

As a result, within a year military contracts will require continuous monitoring of protections for industrial control systems, or ICS -- the networks operating utilities, sewage treatment and other critical infrastructure, Daryl Haegley, a Defense program manager leading ICS security efforts, said during an interview. This is in contrast to the current process of testing systems every three years, he said.

The standards-development process only took about a year (lightning speed in government terms), because of the urgency of the threat, officials said. "You don't typically see something move this quickly through DoD," said Michael Chipley, a private consultant who is working on the ICS security project. 

Pentagon officials described one recent real-life incident that displayed the fragility of industrial systems. In 2011, the military constructed a state of the art building operated by a central control panel that was networked to turn on and off the water, heat, security and other building maintenance features. When someone connected a basic office printer to the network, the system tried and failed to identify the unknown device, causing tens of thousands of building devices to try to respond, and ultimately jam the network. "Just connecting a printer can bring down an industrial control system network," Haegley said. 

The forthcoming contract specifications include safeguards such as sensors and software that regularly scan infrastructure electronics for abnormal activity, analogous to how the whole government now requires continuous monitoring tools on federal information technology. Recently, civilian agencies began a similar program -- the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, dubbed FedRAMP -- to certify that cloud vendors who remotely provide federal IT services continuously monitor their privately-owned data centers.

Today, military employees and contractors have little visibility into potential electronic threats against critical infrastructure because those facilities were never designed to scan themselves, officials said. There is no standard McAfee- or Symantec-like system you can buy off the shelf for tracking vulnerabilities on bridge lever machines and other essential equipment. Right now, patches and other vulnerability fixes are applied manually, which often means vital systems have to be turned off during maintenance. One major problem with this arrangement: "Sometimes you can't go without water, you can't go without power," Haegley said. 

There are some automated protections -- firewalls, virtual private networks and disablement of remote access -- that can be bolted on to systems after the fact, officials said. Going forward, Pentagon suppliers will have to either embed strong safeguards into industrial control systems or forego military business.

The president's order, however, only calls for voluntary cyber standards for securing critical infrastructure. The dictate asks the General Services Administration, the government's purchasing arm, and the Pentagon to evaluate the possibility of rejecting federal vendors who do not comply with the standards. Within three months, the departments are to advise the president "on the feasibility, security benefits, and relative merits” of incorporating security standards into contract administration, the order states. 

Haegley said the military's ICS security rubric "will be available and usable throughout government and industry," adding that he thinks the specifications should be inserted into acquisition requirements.

To develop the critical infrastructure security framework, officials picked 200 items from an a la carte menu of 600 existing National Institute of Standards and Technology controls that they thought best suited ICS, he said. 

A new report by James A. Lewis, a cybersecurity researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and frequent administration adviser, suggests a similar strategy could fulfill Obama’s mandate.

The order directs NIST, in consultation with industry, to create a full range of measures for critical infrastructure, which is expected to take two years, but initial controls “are already a subset of NIST’s existing guidance -- and could be expanded or modified by the NIST process to implement the executive order,” Lewis wrote. “Waiting a year or two to put requirements in place would be a mistake.”

The Pentagon’s goal is for its military-grade safeguards to catch on outside military facilities and help protect private industrial operations, much like how the government encryption specification Federal Information Processing Standard, or FIPS, now helps protect privately-owned data.

But it will take "many years before we can get all the ICS systems certified" using the specific controls, because the scanning systems are not commercially available yet and prior accreditations have not expired, Chipley said.  

Even so, the push for stronger cybersecurity nationwide -- underscored by Obama's executive order -- could accelerate implementation, Haegley said.  

(Image via wang song/