Vendors join fight to secure privileged access

It is a battle to protect the privileged. But in this case, it is not the 1%. This is about privileged access accounts within critical infrastructure (CI) control systems.

It should be no surprise that cybercriminals have figured out that privileged access is better than regular access. But they have also learned that privileged access points to CI control systems remain vulnerable.

Insider access is so popular and so "accessible" for sophisticated cybercrime groups that it has become commoditized, complete with a service offered in the marketplace of the cybercrime underground.

Now, some security vendors are offering ways to fight back. Among them is Cyber-Ark Software, which this week announced the release of its Privileged Identity Management Suite for Critical Infrastructure Protection (PIM/CIP). The company says the suite secures CI by "preventing the exploitation of local or remote access to privileged accounts -- the primary target of Industrial Control Systems (ICS) and SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) cyber-attacks."

The vulnerability of these systems is largely due to the fact that most of them were not designed with cybersecurity in mind because at the time, they didn't need to be -- they were not networked or connected to the Internet. Given that, many have hardcoded and factory default passwords.

[See related: Nearly two-dozen bugs easily found in critical infrastructure software]

Now at least portions of them are connected, so that companies can monitor everything from remote oil wells to smart meters at private homes. Beyond that, CI operators have interconnected their corporate IT systems with production and operational environments -- systems that were traditionally segregated.

Jason Healey, a former White House and Goldman Sachs security official now with the Atlantic Council, notes that infrastructure cannot be redesigned quickly to be less vulnerable. "So many of those systems were designed to work for decades, we can't simply rotate the equipment out as we might for a desktop computer," he said.

The Department of Homeland Security's Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) has issued multiple warnings to CI operators about their vulnerabilities. Among its recommendations are:

Minimize network exposure for all control system devices.

Control system devices should not directly face the Internet.

Locate control system networks and devices behind firewalls and isolate them from the business network.

But those measures are not enough, said Adam Bosnian, executive vice president Americas for Cyber-Ark. "Even if operating systems aren't on the public Internet, if other internal users have access to the Internet, they could get in from there and work their way over on the internal network," he said.

Bosnian says the PIM/CIP program works by both monitoring and controlling privileged access accounts. "Depending on the system, we're able to define what a user can and can't do," he said. "Let's say there are 100 possible commands. We may say that User X can only do two of them on his own, needs permission to do five others and can never do 93 others."

And once User X is active, the program allows the company to manage the connection, he said. "We give the opportunity to review the activity on that system in real time," so depending on whether the activity is normal or suspcious, "they can make the call to let it persist or kill it."

Most security experts say this is not the ideal solution. The better way: to "build security in" to infrastructure control systems from the ground up. Adding security after the fact is "bolting it on," and is not as effective. But in this case, it is the only option, since these systems may not be replaced for decades.

"Given the longer life cycles, bolting on makes a lot more sense," said Healey.

Gary McGraw, CTO of Cigital, a build-security-in advocate for years, acknowledged in a recent essay that, "you can't do that with the legacy systems -- 'bolting it on' is the only option, and not a very good one."

Jody Westby, CEO of Global Cyber Risk, said no single product will protect privileged access accounts or secure SCADA and Industrial Control Systems. "But if it is integrated into an enterprise security program, then it is part of a layered security. This is a good approach," she said.

Control systems are being improved, but she agrees with other experts that "it is a slow process."

Bosnian agrees. "The ideal is to have security built in from the genesis. But it's not reality. So it's up to us to make sure that what's bolted on is as good as possible."

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