IEC 61511 Security – getting the right detail level

When performing the risk and vulnerability assessment required by the new IEC 61511 standard, make sure the level of detail is just right for your application. Normally the system integrator is operating at the architectural level, meaning signal validation in software components should probably already have been dealt with. On the other hand, upgrading and maintaining the system during the entire lifecycle has to be looked into. Just enough detail can be hard to aim for but digging too deep is costly, and being too shallow doesn’t help your decision making. Therefore, planning the security assessment depth level already from the beginning should be a priority!

Starting with the context – having the end in mind

The purpose of including cybersecurity requirements in a safety instrumented system design is to make sure the reliability of the system is not threatened by security incidents. That reliability requires each safety instrumented function (SIF) to perform its intended task at the right moment; we are concerned with the availability and the integrity of the system.

 

072115_1313_Uncertainty1.png

The probability of failure on demand for a safety critical function usually depends on random error distributions and testing regimes. How can hacker threats be included in the thinking around reliability engineering? The goal is to remain confident in the reliability calculations, so that quantitative risk calculations are still meaningful.

 

In order to understand the threats to your system you need to start with the company and its place in the world, and in the supply chain. What does the company do? Consider an oil producer active in a global upstream market – producing offshore, onshore, as well as from unconventional sources such as tar-sands, arctic fields and shale oil. The company is also investing heavily in Iraq, including areas recently captured from ISIS. Furthermore, on the owner side of this company you find a Russian oligarch, who is known to be close to the Kremlin, as a majority stock holder. The firm is listed on the Hong Kong stock Market. Its key suppliers are Chinese engineering firms and steel producers, and its top customers are also Chinese government-backed companies. How does all of this affect the threat landscape as it applies to this firm?

The firm is interfering with causes that may trigger the interest of hacktivists:

  • Unconventional oil production
  • Arctic oil production

It also operates in an area that can make them a target for terrorist groups, in one of the most politically unstable regions in the world, where the world’s largest military powers also have to some degree opposing interests. This could potentially draw the interest of both terrorist groups and of nation state hackers. It is also worth noting that the company is on good terms with both the Russian and Chinese governments, two countries often accused of using state sponsored hackers to target companies in the west. The largest nation state threat to this oil company may thus be from western countries, including the one headed by Donald Trump. He has been quite silent on cybersecurity after taking office but issued statements during his campaign in 2016 hinting at more aggressive build-ups of offensive capacities. So, the company itself should at least expect the interest of script kiddies, hacktivists, cybercriminals, terrorists, nation states and insiders. These groups have quite varying capacities and the SIS is typically hard to get at due to multiple firewalls and network segregations. Our main focus should thus be of hacktivists, terrorists and nation states – with cybercriminals and insiders acting as proxies (knowingly or not).

The end in mind: keeping safety-critical systems reliable also under attack, or at least make it an insignificant contribution to unreliability.

Granularity of security assessment

Our goal of this discussion was to find the right depth level for risk and vulnerability assessments under IEC 61511. If we start with the threat actors and their capabilities, we observe some interesting issues:

  • Nation states: capable of injecting unknown features into firmware and application software at the production stage, including human infiltration of engineering teams. This can also be “features” sanctioned by the producer in some countries. Actual operations can include cyberphysical incursions with real asset destruction.
  • Terrorists: infiltration of vendors less likely. Typical capabilities are ATP’s using phishing to break the attack surface, and availability attacks through DDoS provided the SIS can be reached. Physical attack is also highly likely.
  • Cybercriminals: similar to terrorists, but may also have more advanced capabilities. Can also act out of own interest, e.g. through extortion schemes.
  • Hacktivists: unlikely to threaten firmware and software integrity. Not likely to desire asset damage as that can easily lead to pollution, which is in conflict with their likely motivations. DDoS attacks can be expected, SIS usually not exposed.

Some of these actors have serious capabilities, and it is possible that they will be used if the political climate warrants this. As we are most likely relying on procured systems form established vendors, using limited variability languages for the SIS, we have little influence over the low-level software engineering. Configurations, choice of blocks and any inclusion of custom-designed software blocks is another story. Regarding our assessment we should thus, at least, include the following aspects:

  • Procurement – setting security requirements and general information security requirements, and managing the follow-up process and cross-organizational competence management.
  • Software components – criticality assessment. Extra testing requirements to vendors. Risk assessment including configuration items.
  • Architectural security – network segregation, attack surface exposure, monitoring, security technologies, responsible organizations and network operations
  • Hardware – tampering risk, exposure to physical attacks, ports and access points, network access points including wireless (VSAT, microwave, GSM, WiFi)
  • Organizational security risks: project organization, operations organization. Review of roles and responsibilities, criticality of key personnel, workload aspects, contractual interfaces, third-party personnel.

Summary

This post does not give a general procedure for depth of analysis decisions but it does outline important factors. Always start with the context to judge both impact and expected actions from threat actors. Use this to determine capabilities of the main threat actors. This will help you decide the granularity level of your assessment. The things that are outside of your control should also not be neglected by considered an uncertainty point that may influence the necessary security controls you need to put in place.

 

granularity

A sketch of key factors to include when deciding on the granularity for a cybersecurity risk assessment under IEC 61511

 

 

 

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