Will nuclear breaches melt down information sharing?

broken lock 

Cybersecurity and nuclear power experts have been quick to say that recently disclosed cyber intrusions at power plants do not pose a public safety risk. Yet experts and former officials say the potential fallout is that information sharing between critical infrastructure owners and the government could melt down.

The New York Times and Bloomberg first reported that on June 28, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI sent out an alert to power providers that there were ongoing cyber intrusions at a number of facilities dating back at least a month.

According to the Times, the still-unidentified attackers were using sophisticated spear-phishing campaigns targeting senior control engineers in an attempt to steal credentials.

"Any potential impact appears to be limited to administrative and business networks," DHS told FCW in an email statement.

Nuclear Energy Institute Vice President Joseph Pollock added, "safety and control systems at nuclear power plants are not connected to business networks or the internet."

Federal regulations require a nuclear power plant to provide notice to the government within hours of the detection of a cyber intrusion that either poses an immediate safety threat or could pose such a threat. In this case, the intrusions did not rise to the level of triggering the reporting requirement, and in fact that protocol has never been triggered since it was instituted in 2015, said officials at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Both NEI and DHS said there are ongoing operations to secure the computers and systems affected by the intrusions. But former officials say the government also has damage control to do on the information-sharing front.

In the initial alert sent to the power sector, DHS mentioned one affected nuclear plant, Wolf Creek near Burlington, Kan., by name. That goes against protocols designed to strip out or anonymize information about victims of cyber incidents.

"That is the kind of thing the private sector complains about," said former White House cybersecurity coordinator Michael Daniel. He said that from his experience, the government doesn't have a history of leaking personal information, and in fact it is usually the private sector that does.

"[This disclosure] is sort of the exception that proves the rule," said Daniel, who is now president of the Cyber Threat Alliance.

Given the vast amount of private infrastructure and limited resources of the government, Daniel said information sharing is critically important, and both sides must work together in the face of growing cyber threats.

While the NEI said there is robust information sharing between the government and industry, other critical infrastructure sectors have expressed concerns that the government over-classifies information and does not share relevant data in a timely fashion, and often does not provide context that is needed by industry.

Many in the private sector have stated that they simply do not trust the government, in particular DHS, to protect sensitive information.

"Trust is an obstacle in all types of information sharing relationships and that includes industry and government when stakeholders aren’t familiar with each other," said Ryan Gillis, a vice president at Palo Alto Networks and a former NSC cybersecurity official.

"DHS is going to have to take a look at the quality control process and figure out how to try to keep continuing to improve that so it doesn't happen again," said Daniel.

"This could make it harder to recruit new partners for sure," said a former DHS senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I don't think it will change existing relationships, but sadly programs like [automated information sharing] need to grow to be successful and sustained."

"The timing of this kind of flub is bad," said the former official, who added that this will likely result in oversight committees "asking pointed questions around protecting sources."

DHS was unable to provide FCW an explanation why it disclosed Wolf Creek's name in violation of its protocols, or to detail the steps being taken to prevent future releases of personal information.

About the Author

Sean Carberry is a former FCW staff writer who focused on defense, cybersecurity and intelligence.


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