Control Systems and SCADA Security
John H. Saunders, Ph.D.
“The sky is falling” rhetoric associated with critical infrastructure protection (CIP) has become mainstream. In just the last 6 months entire new journals have been created to focus on this topic, and a new CIP division has been created within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). While much of this rancor in CIP is focused upon physical destruction, and weapons of mass destruction threats, other is focused upon critical information infrastructure protection (CIIP). Within the umbrella of CIIP is an area of concern known as control systems (CS).
systems are defined in more depth below, but are essentially “low level”
computer/communications systems for operating electrical grids, transportation
networks, pipelines, and other national infrastructure systems. It has been the
author’s view, that while much haranguing over the challenges in control
systems seem to exist; few seem to understand the real basis of the challenges
in this area. Additionally, information on efforts in government and in
industry to create guidelines and standards to protect CS’s is scarce. At a
conference I attended in late 2002, billed as a “
In this paper, I will attempt to set apart organizations that are doing “real” work for advancing the protection of control systems. As might be expected these groups are largely composed of industry representatives who own and operate the infrastructure. This paper will provide the reader with inroads into published guidelines for improving the security of CIP control systems. It will establish a definition for CS’s, explain the peculiarities associated with security of these systems, and address government and industry efforts to improve overall CS security. The paper will especially focus upon two committees, the SP-99 of the Instrumentation, System and Automation (ISA) Society, and the Process Control Security Requirements Forum (PCSRF) at the National Institute for Systems and Technology (NIST). A more in-depth analysis of documents generated by these committees is provided. In order to understand the issues with control systems we first need to provide a definition for Control System.
What is a Control System?
are electronic and/or electro-mechanical system with sensors used to monitor
& change levels of air, water/fluid, electricity, traffic, natural gas,
etc. using valves, pumps, transformers, and switches. Figure 1 below portrays a
simple control system. This is a mockup of a water tower system with pumps to
fill the tower and valves to control water release. Not shown here are two
other towers (off to the left) that are also part of this small “city wide”
system. While the reservoirs etc are only models, the control system here is
the same that would be used in a full-scale system. This system and others are
being utilized at the National Institute for Systems and Technology at their
Figure 1 - Simple Control System (CS)
CS’s are widely used throughout the world but are more prevalent in developed countries. They are used to automate pumping of the water we drink, distributing the fuel we use for heating, and delivering the electricity we consume. At the heart of CS’s are computing devices with varying levels of intelligence. These devices make many decisions about adjusting system settings based upon inputs from sensors spread around the control network. Table 1 below provides a basic description of some of these devices. Appendix B provides some photographs of these devices. Understanding how CS’s operate is important for understanding security issues in the same vein that understanding how computers, switches, and routers operate is important for the control of network security. Ironically there is often more CS expertise resident in less developed countries. The focus there is upon maintaining these devices. In developed countries older systems are simply replaced with newer devices.
Programmable Logic Controller
Could be described as a very simple computing device. In a repeating cycle it looks at its inputs and depending upon their state, turns on/off its outputs. Contains relays, counters, timers, and data storage locations. “Real time” response is an important element. Operation is governed by standard IEC 61131-3. They are programmed via an Instruction List (IL), Ladder Diagram (LD), Function Block Diagram (FBD) or Structured Text (ST).
Remote Terminal/Telemetry Unit (RTU)
A device typically in a distant location that monitors and makes simple decisions. It relays its status to a more central collection agent via a typically slow (e.g. 9600 bps) communications channel, and may also receive instructions.
Intelligent Electronic Device (IED)
A generic name for a “hub” device which possess greater intelligence and therefore decision making capability. These devices are specific purpose, quite sophisticated and typically reside at a regional collection point such as an electrical power substation.
Human Machine Interface (HMI) Monitor
A visual monitor that depicts the complete components of a large distributed system and that conveys a real time operational state. The HMI will be found at a single central location and is usually running on a general purpose computer. There is a small group of software providers in this market space.
Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition
Not actually a single device but more typically a full scale general purpose computer or set of computers. Typically in use in very large systems such as a utility company’s central control or a regional transportation systems HQ. May monitor thousands of RTUs and/or PLCs.
The number of major manufacturers of control system devices such as PLC’s and RTU’s is relatively small. Appendix A lists the major CS companies. However there are a considerably larger number of smaller companies who specialize in the application of these devices to solve a wide array of challenges. So you may find, for example, an Allen-Bradley PLC-5/1771 simultaneously utilized in a wastewater facility, in an airfield lighting system, and on a steel mill production line.
These devices have a significantly longer operational life than computers. Whereas a computer may have a 3-4 year operating life, a PLC or IED may be in operation for a decade or even two. As such standards in this arena have evolved slowly. There is no one agreed upon standard such as those in the desktop computing world like IP or RS-232. Competing communications and processing standards in CS such as MODBUS, DNP, OPENNET, and Profibus remain common.
Where CS computing devices physically reside depends upon the size, complexity, and economic viability of the overall system. Appendix B’s diagram 1 portrays a larger scale system with combinations of the computing devices. Larger scale combined systems are often referred to collectively as Distributed Control Systems (DCS). A DCS may be spread across hundreds of miles and have thousands of control devices.
Traditionally safety has a big issue in control systems. Preventing pipelines from bursting, trains from colliding, and electrical transformers from exploding are important considerations. At the same time there is considerable pressure placed upon utilities and other companies utilizing CS’s to provide uptimes approaching 100%. Unlike computer networks, control systems are not taken out of service for maintenance. When they are out of service, they are considered “down.” Additionally, unlike computer networks, the “code” in a device such as an RTU is rarely updated. During its entire lifespan, its code and the hardware functionality may never be changed.
very recently security has not been an issue looming large in control systems.
Presidential Decision Directive 63 provided the first boost to the issue. The events of
Retrofitting security into control systems devices is problematic. The NSSCS report, when referring to CS devices states, “Security features are not easily adapted to the space or power requirements. In addition, these systems operate in real time and security measures could reduce performance and impact the synchronization of larger processes.” This report tasked DHS and the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop 1) best practices and new technology to increase security of DCS/SCADA, and 2) a prioritized plan for short term cyber security improvements.
Some of the increasingly important issues associated with CS’s include the following:
The saving grace in security for most CS’s has been vendor specific / proprietary protocols and the large number of disconnected systems. This situation can be likened to the mini-computer world of the 1970s and 1980’s. Each vendor has its own standards and protocols. It is difficult to become expert with more than one vendor’s standards, and connecting units together requires specially built equipment.
On the contrary side, many of the older systems lack even the most basic security measures such as passwords. Almost always messages are sent in the clear.
Establishing security standards in CS can be somewhat problematic because there are so many devices, protocols and applications involved. Nonetheless efforts on a National scale and also within various infrastructure sectors are progressing. In the electrical sector, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), and the Electric Power Research Institute all conduct research and publish guidelines. In the oil and chemical processing arena the Chemical Industry Data Exchange has created an extensive set of guidelines. In the gas and oil pipeline sector the American Gas Association (AGA) has produced one of the best courses available. Irrespective a need was felt by CS suppliers and by major consumers that “across the board” efforts to provide security guidance would benefit all sectors. Such was the origin of the PCSRF and the SP-99 from ISA.
The PCSRF is a working group formed from the National Information Assurance Partnership (NIAP). Its structure is shown below. The Intelligent Devices group at NIST, headed by Keith Stouffer, has been tasked to lead this effort. A contractor, Decisive Analytics, has been responsible for compiling much of the work and producing the documents.
The overall goal of the effort is to “to characterize the minimal security capabilities to be provided by the product components that comprise an Industrial Control System (ICS), and the minimal security capabilities that must be exhibited by the ICS after the product components have been integrated together to form an ICS. “ The diagram below portrays the planned functionality of the forum.
To date the PCSRF has produced two documents. They are:
Neither of these documents has yet been released for public comment. And as of this time the System Protection Profile for Industrial Control Systems is still in preliminary review.
The SCPICS lays out the mission of the PCSRF and defines its relationship to the ISA’s SP-99 and to the Common Criteria. It addresses the issues concerned with CS vulnerabilities. It also takes a brief look at CS objectives, and then lays out requirements for improving security in CS’s. Among these requirements are many which already exist within computer networks but which are largely absent from distributed control systems. The following are some of the major areas where improvements are suggested for CS’s:
The SPP is an ISO 15408 based document. This means it has security functional requirements (SFR) and security assurance requirements (SAR) that cover the accreditation of systems using system protection profiles (SPP) and system security targets (SST). Those familiar with the Common Criteria will recognize these goals, which align with that effort.
The ISA-SP99, Manufacturing and Control Systems Security Committee
The Instrumentation, Systems and Automation (ISA) Society is a 38,000 member organization devoted to automation and control. It focuses upon the theory, design, manufacture, and use of sensors, instruments, computers, and systems. As in any membership organization of this size, it sponsors conferences, education and training, and technical committees for establishing processes and standards.
A specific committee of the ISA, labeled SP99, was formed in 2002 to “establish standards, recommended practices, technical reports, and related information that will define procedures for implementing electronically secure manufacturing and control systems and security practices and assessing electronic security performance.” As can be seen from the voting membership list in Appendix C, voting representation on the committee comes primarily from industrial organizations such as Dow Chemical, Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Kraft, and 3M.
SP-99 established an ambitious calendar to get a standard for controls systems
security released by April 2003. While that deadline was missed, they were
successful in issuing a draft that was approved by voting members of the
committee in August 2003. The draft was introduced to the general membership at
the Annual ISA Conference in
SP-99 has 3 major parts as follows:
I. Security Technologies for Manufacturing and Control Systems
II. Integrating Security into the Manufacturing and Control System Environment
III. Testing, Audits and Metrics for Manufacturing and Control Systems Security
I deals primarily with laying out the different technology options that are
available. So it covers basic security technology such as access control
mechanisms and perimeter defense technology. It looks at the pros and cons for
each approach, especially related to CS’s. Part II deals with imbedding these
into current environments. It looks at building a program to inculcate security
across the depth and breadth of the control system enterprise. This is
typically quite difficult due to the stable environments of CS. Making changes
in these environments is difficult. Finally Part III uses a design adopted from
the “V” Model, ISO/IEC 12119 Standard, frequently used in
This paper has provided a look into the structure and makeup of control systems. It has laid out some of the current weaknesses with these systems. It has provided additional rationale on how growing issues such as Internet connectivity may be worsening the security of control systems. Finally it has outlined a few industry efforts that are attempting to establish standards and propagate information to improve the overall security for information infrastructure protection relating to control systems.
Writing standards and guidelines is different than enforcing them or offering incentives to use them. Not long after the September 11th 2001 event, Congress passed Public Law 107–188—June 12, 2002 Public Health Security And Bioterrorism Preparedness And Response Act Of 2002. This act provided grant funding on the average of $150,000 per institution for water/sewage utilities to improve the security posture of their organization. The utilities could spend the money as they wished to include “improvements to electronic, computer, or other automated systems and remote security systems.” Incentives such as these are needed before we will see real improvement in the security of control systems in our country. We should not wait until a massive attack cripples our infrastructure.
J., Stouffer, K., Wavering, A., and Proctor, F. IT Security for Industrial Control Systems. NIST,
Accounting Office. (2003, October) Critical
Infrastructure Protection: Challenges in Securing Control Systems.
Control Security Requirements Forum. System Capabilities Profile for
Industrial Control Systems. (2003) Version 1.0 May 22. NIST.
Control Security Requirements Forum. System Protection Profile – Industrial Control
Systems. (2004) Version 0.91 February 4.. NIST.
F. Potok, T., Loebl, A., Krings, A. and
J., Dillinger,J. Young , W. and DePoy,
J. Common vulnerabilities
in Critical Infrastructure Control systems. Sandia National Labs
White House. (2003, February) National
Strategy to Secure Cyberspace.
What is a PLC? http://www.plcs.net/contents.shtml
Appendix A – Major Control Systems Manufacturers
Appendix B – Control Systems Devices
1. Programmable Logic Controller (PLC)
2. Remote Terminal Unit (RTU)
3. Intelligent Electronic Device (IED)
4. Human Machine Interface
5. Generic Distributed Control System with SCADA
Appendix C - Voting Members of SP-99
Charles Robinson, Staff Contact, ISA, Phone: (919) 990-9213, Fax: (919) 549-8288, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency
 Information Analysis & Infrastructure Protection Division
 Sector 5, Gartner Group, October 2002.
 National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, February 2003. p. 32.
 An effort to lay out standards for software based upon testing to attain assurance levels
 ibid 5.
 ISA-SP99, Manufacturing and Control Systems Security at http://www.isa.org/MSTemplate.cfm?MicrositeID=988&CommitteeID=6821