Does safety engineering require security engineering?

Safetey critical control systems are developed with respect to reliability requirements, often following a reliability standard such as IEC 61508 or CENELEC EN 50128. These standards put requirements on development practices and activities with regard to creating software that works the way it is intended based on the expected input, and where availability and integrity is of paramount importance. However, these standards do not address information security. Some of the practices required from reliability standards do help in removing bugs and design flaws – which to a large extent also removes security vulnerabilites – but they do not explicitly express such conceerns. Reliability engineering is about building trust into the intended functionality of the system. Security is about lack of unintended functionality.

Consider a typical safety critical system installed in an industrial process, such as an overpressure protection system. Such a system may consist of a pressure transmitter, a logic unit (ie a computer) and some final elements. This simple system meausres the pressure  and transmits it to the computer, typically over a hardwired analog connection. The computer then decides if the system is within a safe operating region, or above a set point for stopping operation. If we are in the unsafe region, the computer tells the final element to trip the process, for example by flipping an electrical circuit breaker or closing a valve. Reliability standards that include software development requirements focus on how development is going to work in order to ensure that whenever the sensor transmits pressure above the threshold, the computer will tell the process to stop. Further the computer is connected over a network to an engineering station which is used for such things as updating the algorithm in the control system, changing the threshold limits, etc.

What if someone wants to put the system out of order, without anyone noticing? The software’s access control would be a crucial barrier against anyone tampering with the functionality. Reliability standards do not talk about how to actually avoid weak authentication schemes, although they talk about access management in general. You may very well be compliant with the reliability standard – yet have very weak protection against compromising the access control. For example, the coder may very well use a “getuser()” call  in C in the authentication part of the software – without violating the reliability standard requirements. This is a very unsecure way of getting user credentials from the computer and should generally be avoided. If such a practice is used, a hacker with access to the network could with relaitve ease  get admin access to the system and change for example set points, or worse, recalibrate the pressure  sensor to report wrong readings – something that was actually done in the Stuxnet case.

In other words – as long as someone can be interested in harming your operation – your safety system needs security built-in, and that is not coming for free through reliability engineering. And there is always someone out to get you – for sports, for money or just because they do not like you. Managing security is an important part of managing your business risk – so do not neglect this issue while worrying only about reliability of intended functionality.

One thought on “Does safety engineering require security engineering?

  1. New security requirements to safety instrumented systems in IEC 61511 | safecontrols

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