97 Percent of Key Industries Doubt Security Compliance Can Defy Hackers


Utilities and energy companies are more focused on preventing downtime than thwarting breaches.

Only 3 percent of information technology executives at utilities and other businesses critical to society strongly believe security rules and standards decrease threats to the systems running their operations, according to a new study.

The Ponemon Institute report, expected to be released today, comes amid warnings by the Department of Homeland Security about a hacker operation that already has attacked U.S. and European energy companies.

The energy industry is federally mandated to comply with so-called critical infrastructure protection standards issued by the nonprofit North American Electric Reliability Corporation. Some other businesses the government considers critical -- such as health care and banking -- are regulated by sector-specific agencies. Those industries not subject to federal requirements can choose to follow new voluntary guidelines the White House issued in February. 

“Our findings provide strong evidence that federally mandated compliance requirements such as NERC CIP and others may be inadequate in strengthening the security posture of critical infrastructure companies," study author Larry Ponemon told Nextgov

Managers are more focused on immediate concerns -- such as downtime -- than prevention and compliance. About 40 percent of participants said adhering to regulatory and legal mandates is a top security objective. 

Most of the leaders surveyed experienced at least one incident during the past year that compromised information or disrupted operations, but less than 50 percent said averting a cyberattack is a top security priority. 

The study did not examine the reasons for the apathy toward compliance, but Ponemon said it's likely directives and recommendations become outdated too fast to be of use. 

"The regulations themselves are not getting the job done," he said. "It's hard to have regulations in this area that are dynamic enough to be helpful."  

The disinterest in compliance is not because of ignorance. About a third of executives polled were very familiar with cyber standards such as those developed by NERC and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and 57 percent were at least somewhat familiar. 

Funding plays at least some role in following protocols. Only a quarter of the executives said their organization has sufficient resources to achieve compliance with government and industry standards. 

The findings are based on a survey of about 600 IT and information security executives in the United States and overseas. The leaders hold positions at electric, gas and water utilities, as well as at oil distributors, alternative-energy companies and chemical and industrial manufacturers.  

The poll, sponsored by Unisys, was independently conducted by the Ponemon Institute between late April and early May.

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