DHS needs to plug some cybersecurity holes, audit finds

National Cyber Security Division needs more info sharing, risk assessments

The Homeland Security Department is should improve its cybersecurity programs for some major control systems, according to a new report from DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner.

The control systems, which operate primarily in power plants, factories and utilities, are a vital part of the nation’s critical infrastructure. In recent years control systems increasingly have become networked and linked with other information technology systems including the Internet. As a result, the control systems are vulnerable to cyber threats,  the IG said.

DHS’ National Cyber Security Division (NCSD) has been coordinating public and private efforts for cybersecurity in control systems. It also conducts training. Although that division has made progress, there are still gaps in control system cybersecurity, according to the IG's report published Sept. 1.

Skinner said the division needs to do more to encourage information sharing between the public and private sectors on needs, threats and vulnerabilities that affect control systems; conduct more vulnerability assessments performed on control systems; deploy better performance measures; and initiate an expanded program for education, training and awareness.

“While progress has been made, the [NCSD] still faces difficult challenges in effectively reducing the cybersecurity risks to the nation’s critical infrastructure,” Skinner wrote. “Improvements are needed in NCSD’s effort to protect and secure control systems that are essential to the nation’s security and economy."

For example, more information sharing is needed, the report said. Some regulatory agencies expressed concern with the national cyber division’s leadership role and were dissatisfied with the amount of information that was being shared. The agencies complained that they were not informed of the results of cyber control system vulnerability assessments, the IG said.

Skinner first made eight recommendations for improvement, and DHS officials agreed with seven of them. Skinner withdrew his recommendation to conduct specialized training for each sector. DHS managers said that would not be effective because control system applications affect multiple sectors.

Approximately 80 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructures are privately owned and operated. Control systems are used in all or nearly all 18 critical infrastructure sectors, including agriculture, banking, chemicals, defense, energy, manufacturing and transportation, the IG said.

Debate continues on whether DHS has enough authority to effectively coordinate cybersecurity efforts for critical private infrastructure facilities.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Wed, Sep 9, 2009 theo someblackthoughts.com

Here's an idea. How about we prohibit (or strongly discourage) SCADA software running on XP or similarly bloated systems. Such control systems are special purpose. The platforms they run on should be too.

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