Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Smart Grid Security: Answers in Questions

Over the past year, Andy and I have written about the risks and opportunities in the growing software sector of the Smart Grid Marketplace. We have described the space, some of the firms, the investment, and what we are seeing for security in those organizations we speak with. In response, and I think with genuine interest, we've been asked what we are worried about, and in turn, what recommendations would we specifically make to individuals who are either investing in these solutions, or who are actually building them.

In the recent NIST strategy and requirement recommendations release, there was a substantial body of information to be reviewed, and this post is not meant to summarize or to supplant those results (obviously). This is a relatively lightweight view of heavy duty and high-level considerations in software as a critical element in the development of the Smart Grid. It is a practical list of questions that organizations should be able to answer before they commit to software that will either replace or broker their interactions with the Smart Grid.

What is the software's provenance?
Provenance is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but I use it to express the idea of origin. Where did the software come from? Who made it? What was it made from? While absolute provenance is difficult or impossible to ascertain, these answers can help to guide risk awareness and management. Is it new software built for me? Is it existing software that has run similar systems elsewhere? Is it a new solution from an existing partner, or revision 0.9 from a start-up? Is it built from the ground up, or does it contain elements of legacy applications, particularly those that my have been written with a different security mindset? By understanding more about the roots of software, the strategy to secure its use will be better informed.

Why ask the question? Unless you know about the origins of software, it is very hard to put together a plan to ascertain its security. Knowing who built it provides a resource to ask about the way in which it was built. Knowing about its components provides information to use in testing it or researching testing done by others.

What is the plan for ongoing governance?
Governance, similarly, has a variety of depths of detail and application, particularly in IT. For our purposes, the questions can be limited. How will the software be updated? Who will make those decisions? What is the process to initiate or approve a change? New software in any environment, and even established software in a dynamic environment, will face frequent opportunities and requirements to change. Understanding the models through which those changes are considered, approved, and delivered enables organizations to measure and manage their own risk from flux in the software, and in any collateral instability introduced to dependent systems.

Why ask the question? Instability = Insecurity. Haphazard or non-existent governance leads to more frequent changes, less testing time for the solution in place, and to inevitable discontinuities if the software is a component of a larger system. Weak governance also increases the opportunities and likelihood of malicious coding behavior by simply increasing the chaos during the software delivery process.

What does the software do with data?
Data is at the root of almost every application's function and purpose. Whether it exists to generate data, to gather it, or to analyze it, data is not only central to the application, it is often the prime target for an attacker. For that reason, there are multiple facets to consider. What kinds of data does the application gather, where does it come from, and how does it enter the system? Once the data has entered the system, does it get stored, and is it stored with appropriate protection of privacy and integrity? If the data ever moves between components of the system or between multiple systems, is it appropriately protected by the software for privacy and integrity? Does the system restrict access to the data, and is access control sufficiently granular to permit only authorized individuals to enter into the system? Each of these questions naturally results in a series of more technical and specific questions about the behavior of the application, but requiring answers to these high-level queries will mean that these will not be ignored.

Why ask the question? Data is central to the smartness of the Smart Grid, and its protection is expected by subscribers, is in many cases mandated by regulation, and is certainly necessary to ensure reliable operation of the Smart Grid.

How has the software been tested?
The testing of software, particularly for security issues, is still a developing field. There are a variety of approaches and mechanisms, each with their own strengths and deficiencies. What testing has been done, and on what components? What approaches were used, and with what results? Have all components been considered for security issues prior to their inclusion, and how were they vetted prior to selection?

Why ask the question? Understanding the testing process for the software can uncover blindspots to some sets of security issues, and can also identify weaknesses in methodology that can indicate systemic problems from the provider. If the testing ignores a specific area, like data storage or access control, then that lack of attention raises the likelihood that there could have been a similar lack of focus during its construction. Testing has many facets, and security must be among them.

These questions are intended to be a very brief introduction to some of the underlying and quite concrete issues that must be considered during the Grid's evolution to a Smart Grid. In time, each of these areas must be expanded into multiple levels of detail, but for now, this is a start. It is the start of generating more informed awareness, and of describing the types and amount of data that is required to feel secure during the adoption of new Smart Grid technologies.

In return, though, having those answers will certainly bring more confidence, more security, and more opportunity for success in the new Smart Grid.

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