Study: Critical infrastructure often under cyberattack

Security insiders are unhappy with the lack of preparedness

Computer systems that run the world's critical infrastructure are not as secure as they should be, according to a new survey.

The survey, released yesterday, asked 199 management, network engineers and administrators in nine infrastructure industries about the state of cybersecurity in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Insiders said that all of these industries, except for financial services, were unprepared for cyberattacks. These industries included water, utilities, oil and gas, telecommunications, transportation, emergency services, chemical and the shipping industry.

And that's bad news because more than half of them said that their companies had already been hit with some sort of cyberincident, data leak or insider attack. Another 14% said they were expecting something like this to happen in the next year.

"None of them thought that they were very prepared for either insider threats or data leakage," said Elan Winkler, director of critical infrastructure solutions at Secure Computing Corp., which paid for the study that was produced by IDC's Energy Insights. IDC is owned by International Data Group, the parent company of the IDG News Service and Computerworld.

About 90% of the survey's 199 respondents were directly employed in the infrastructure industry with the other 10% listed as in another other occupation, such as academic or consultant.

Although there have been scattered reports of computer compromises affecting critical infrastructure, most companies keep this kind of information secret because it could be potentially embarrassing.

That's not the case in the IT security industry, which often prides itself on the open disclosure of information. There is often a culture clash between IT security folks, who push to make security information public, and more conservative utility security workers, who worry that this kind of knowledge could be misused.

The Energy Insights survey found that many insiders are dissatisfied with the lack of preparedness within their own industries. About three quarters of respondents said they were "annoyed, angry or frustrated" with the state of critical infrastructure security, Winkler said.

"These are the people who actually know what's going on and they're unhappy," she said. "That, to me, was a real surprise."

Some industries are farther along than others, Winkler said. Financial, energy and telecommunications are the most prepared, she said, while the water, shipping and transportation industries were rated least-ready.

However, the energy sector was considered the most in need of improved security because it is the biggest, most vulnerable and easiest to breach, respondents said.

Cost was ranked as the biggest impediment to security, Winkler said.

Industries that have already seen how a major disaster can affect their bottom line are more likely to have serious risk analysis models that take issues like cybersecurity into account, said Eric Byres, chief technology officer at Byres Security Inc., a critical infrastructure security consultancy. "What I'm seeing is that there is a real mix," he said. "Some companies are really on the ball ... and then I see other companies that are very much in the dark, who don't get it."

The companies that are prepared for the next cyberattack are the ones that have buy-in from the bosses, Byres said. "It really gets driven from the upper management," he said.

The survey can be found on the Secure Computing Web site (registration required).

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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