Government focuses on industrial controls

Process Control Systems Forum

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Homeland Security Department officials have formed a partnership with academic and technology experts to help accelerate protection of computerized systems that control the nation’s electrical grids, water treatment and distribution plants, and other critical infrastructures.

According to its Web site, the Process Control Systems (PCS) Forum, which will hold its inaugural meeting May 17 and 18 in Dallas, is not intended to be a standards body or supplant current initiatives in this area. Instead, it will build on the work already done and establish links with other industry and government organizations to create a common architecture for PCS and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems to ensure their security, reliability and continuity.

"Our objective is to focus and apply the best collective thinking in the industry to transform the current, disparate state of process control systems in this country into one that is based on consensus architecture and best practices," Charles McQueary, undersecretary for DHS' Science and Technology Directorate, said in prepared remarks during the PCS Forum's formational meeting earlier this year.

"The August 2003 blackout in the Northeast is a prime example of how a power failure can have far-reaching, cascading effects and cause a massive, costly disruption," he added. "The PCS Forum will do its part to help prevent such events in the future."

Experts are generally worried about the increasing risks and cyberattacks to such systems that could have devastating effects on the nation. A Government Accountability Office report last year states that growing adoption of Microsoft’s Windows and Unix-like operating systems increases the risks of exploiting known vulnerabilities in those technologies.

Vulnerabilities increase also when SCADA systems are connected to other networks and the Internet and without authentication and encryption. Information about such control systems and infrastructures are also widely available to the public though industry and government publications, maps and online documents, the report states.

The PCS Forum, which will be facilitated by Mitretek Systems, a nonprofit research and engineering group, will provide a single venue for technology researchers, vendors and university officials to help evaluate, specify, develop, refine and test new technologies, according to a press release by the group.

Robert Clerman, vice president for corporate mission initiatives at Mitretek Systems, is acting chair of the PCS Forum’s 11-member governing board. Members include representatives from the private sector, academic community, Energy Department, DHS National Cyber Security Division and the National Institute of Science and Technology.

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