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Preventing Lateral Movement Through Network Access Visibility

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In the first five months of this year, we have already witnessed multiple cyber attacks against critical infrastructure in the US. Those events range from an individual endangering people’s life by poisoning a water-treatment facility to large organized groups disrupting fuel delivery to a significant part of the country.

The increasing number and sophistication of such incidents have reinforced the importance of building resilient cyber infrastructure. Organizations have started identifying their critical systems and protecting them with multiple cyber-defense layers. However, many connected systems that form the perimeter of the organization’s network remain exposed. Such devices include external-facing servers and corporate workstations. Attackers often exploit the perimeter, leveraging existing networking services and unknown loopholes to reach the network’s crown jewels. That approach is termed lateral movement—a set of activities used by attackers to make their way from the initial entry point to critical assets. In such an expansion phase, attackers utilize several exploit techniques and use intermediate devices as stepping stones. Eventually, lateral movement enables attackers to launch data exfiltration or service disruption.

 

Lateral Movement in Action: the SolarWinds Incident


In the
words of Brad Smith, President, Microsoft, the 2020 SolarWinds supply chain attack was an “attack on the United States and its government and other critical institutions, including security firms.” The incident that came into public space in December 2020 had occurred between March and June that year. Sophisticated advanced persistent threat (APT) actors introduced malicious code into the vendor’s Orion platform, a network and endpoint management software. Subsequently, the download of the compromised software provided the APT with a foothold into IT networks of more than 18,000 SolarWinds’ customers that included federal agencies and major private organizations.

Figure 1 illustrates how the malware virtually made it from the Internet to critical segments of a target network. First, the compromised Orion software gave attackers a backdoor into the victim system. Second, since a network management system is typically authorized to have two-way communication with all the devices, attackers could collect authentication keys and tokens. Brute-force password cracking attacks might have also helped attackers to gain privileged access to critical servers. With knowledge of internal architecture and access to credentials, the malicious traffic could go undetected, giving attackers access to confidential information and important services. Due to the large number of entities affected, investigators believe that the extent of the damage from the attack will take years to unravel. Attackers may also carry out follow on attacks using the information collected and tools deployed in victim networks.

Figure 1: Lateral movement in the SolarWinds incident utilized (1) delivery of malware through software update mechanism, (2) Internal reconnaissance and credential harvesting through trusted communications, and (3) Data exfiltration or service disruption.

 

Why does Lateral Movement Need Special Attention?


Lateral movement has been an essential step in a majority of recent cyber attacks. However, since it is a precursor to the actual action on target, organizations have an excellent reason to invest more in defending against lateral movement and the steps that lead to it. Such preparedness would save them significant costs that they would otherwise spend on incident response and repair. 

Achieving resiliency against lateral movement attacks is challenging for three core reasons. First, the attack vectors and techniques that the adversaries can adopt are virtually unlimited. Next, the sophistication of attackers in utilizing benign OS and networking services is increasing. Finally, even though network access and security policies aim to segment networks effectively, unwanted access paths can easily result from misconfigurations, software bugs, and human errors. For example, misconfiguration of firewall access policies was a primary enabler of the attacker’s lateral movement in the 2013 Target Corporation data breach and 2015-16 Ukrainian power grid incident.

 

Preventing Lateral Movement


One important insight that benefits the defender is that an adversary, to move laterally, must have several interactions with the network and leverage the existing access patterns. Therefore, the awareness of network assets and access paths can be vital in measuring and reducing risk concerning lateral movement. Here, an access path refers to a possible network connection between two devices.

At a high level, a common approach to understand lateral movements and reduce risk exposure consists of the following steps:

  1. Computing risk metrics by analyzing the graph structure generated by network paths
  2. Specializing the metrics with additional context from services and vulnerabilities
  3. Changing network configuration to decrease the risk

The first step involves constructing a network access graph and selecting relevant metric(s) to quantify the risk. One commonly adopted metric is the number of (strongly) connected components. A strongly connected component is a directed graph in which every node is reachable from every other node. Because of that property, a connected component becomes a single lateral movement domain. Hence, the presence of large connected components in the network access graph indicates network zones with higher risk.

Figure 2 depicts a sample network segmented into subnets using a Cisco firewall. The figure summarizes network access paths in terms of a connectivity matrix between the different subnets. Such connectivity means that the entire network is one connected component. That is a state of high risk with respect to lateral movement and should be fixed.

Figure 2: With the access policies configured as shown in the table, the network becomes a single fully-connected graph.

 

It is easy to see the value of such analysis for real-world networks consisting of many firewalls and routers. In the second step of the overall process, we can further specialize access paths for specifics of the underlying network and the likely attack vectors. In that context, defenders can implement the following approaches relying on the situational awareness obtained in the previous step:

  1. Analyze paths, both inbound and outbound, for specific networks and devices
  2. Filter paths per service type (protocol-port combinations) to focus more on lateral movement vectors such as authentication, remote access, file transfer, and sharing services
  3. Correlate paths with vulnerability information to evaluate the reachability of highly vulnerable parts of the network to high-value assets

The final step in the risk mitigation process is to be able to identify root causes and fix them. With the precise and actionable information collected so far, security admins can take concrete steps, including the following:

  1. Break down large connected components into many smaller ones to limit the extents of lateral movement domains
  2. Limit reachability of highly vulnerable nodes to critical assets

For instance, in the network presented previously, an admin may choose to limit direct access from ‘Marketing’ to the rest of the network. To accomplish that, as we show in Figure 3a, she can select the specific path and correlate it with the corresponding configuration entry. She can then quickly limit the connectivity and transform the network to a safer state of  Figure 3b.

Figure 3a: Correlating network paths (shown by red arrows) with the corresponding entry in firewall configurations (highlighted by the red box).

 

Figure 3b: Modifying firewall configuration leads to segmenting the network in multiple connected components and improving the overall security posture.

 

Responding to Lateral Movement


The recent attacks against critical infrastructure have reinforced that lateral movement is an integral part of cyber threats. Therefore, as soon as an initial compromise is detected, quickly determining which other systems are endangered is the key to minimizing the damage. Subsequently, one can isolate those assets and restore them in a safe state. 

An accurate understanding of current access paths is a strong ally to reduce risk exposure. Security teams can examine outgoing network access paths from suspected compromised nodes and filter them using compromised services to limit the search space. In particular, a stepping-stone analysis is essential to tell how far specific systems are from a network access standpoint. We have discussed such analyses in detail in our previous article on accelerating incident response.

 

Summary


In this article, we have discussed strategies for countering malicious lateral movement. Specifically, we have demonstrated that situational awareness of network assets and access paths is crucial for blocking lateral movement. In that context, we have illustrated the use of two graph-based risk metrics:
number of connected components and reachability.

Experts have emphasized the importance for cyber-resilient organizations to think in graphs. However, understanding the complex architecture of multi-layer networks can be extremely challenging. Network Perception’s solutions NP-View and NP-Live have been designed to address this challenge by enabling real-time visibility into network assets and access paths, making it easy to adopt the graph-thinking paradigm in practice.

Where was your Baseline when the Colonial Incident Happened?

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The Importance of Knowing your Baseline

On May 7, Joseph Blount, CEO of Colonial Pipeline, authorized a ransom payment of $4.4 million to Darkside, a cyber criminal gang believed to be based in Eastern Europe. Executives at Colonial were forced to make decisions quickly and with a lack of information they were unsure how badly the cyberattack had breached its systems or how long it would take to bring the pipeline back. Operators of the Colonial Pipeline learned the Company was in trouble when an employee found a ransom note displayed on the screen of a control-room computer. This cyberattack underscores the growing impact of cyberthreats on industrial sectors and the fact that attackers are now specifically targeting critical infrastructure to increase their profit.

It is impossible to determine the target or nature of the next cyber attack, but all critical infrastructure industry executives should be asking themselves the same question right now: where is my baseline? Executives don’t know the who, what, how, where or when of the next attack, but all companies can raise the baseline on their cyber resilience posture. Companies that have invested in creating a higher level of cyber resiliency are working from a different baseline and have put themselves in a better position to respond quickly and effectively to reduce cost and risk. These companies will have the information they need for faster, more efficient decision making. Companies that prioritize and invest in creating cyber resiliency as part of their cybersecurity posture are effectively removing risk from the inevitable next cyber attack.

How to Establish Your Baseline

Establishing the initial cyber resiliency baseline is a core step of the Structure Cyber Resiliency Analysis Methodology (SCRAM) developed by MITRE. The goal is to answer the question what can we build on? This is accomplished by reviewing current capabilities, policies and procedures already in place, cybersecurity solutions deployed, and gaps to achieve relevant cyber resiliency goals. As illustrated in the SCRAM document, the result of this activity can be recorded in a scorecard:

In the context of the Colonial Pipeline ransomware incident, the crucial parts of the baseline to review are:

  • The ability to visualize asset inventory, network architecture, and network access
  • The ability to verify correct privilege restriction and network segmentation
  • The speed of existing response capabilities

An efficient approach to build the initial baseline is to use the Colonial attack as a scenario to engage with relevant subject matter experts (SMEs) in your company. Once the baseline has been defined, then a gap analysis can be conducted in order to create and implement a cyber resiliency plan.

Baseline and Cyber Resiliency

The World Economic Forum published this week a guidance document on cyber resiliency that presents 10 key principles that executives in the industrial sector should understand and adopt. In particular, principle #7 states that:

The board ensures that management supports the officer accountable for cyber resilience through the creation, implementation, testing and ongoing improvement of cyber-resilience plans, which are appropriately harmonized across the business. It requires the officer in charge to monitor performance and to regularly report to the board.

Capturing the initial baseline plays a crucial role to create such plans, since it enables all stakeholders to develop a common understanding on which a path to higher cyber resiliency can be defined. This is important to build alignment among business units and across all levels of the organization.

 

Black and white bottom view of a room equipped with data servers for cloud computing and information storage with bright LED lights in ceiling.

Could CIP-005 have prevented the SolarWinds attack?

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It has been four months since we discovered the SolarWinds attack and many organizations are still deep into clean-up efforts. If you have been affected by this event, excellent resources have been published to dissect the malware involved and to help with identification and remediation. We previously discussed lessons learned from the SolarWinds compromise to emphasize the importance of maintaining continuous visibility over networks and to ensure clear separation of duties between monitoring and control solutions. In this article, we are exploring the role of network segmentation through the lens of CIP-005 and the concept of Electronic Security Perimeter (ESP).

Best Practices from the Electric Industry

In the world of industrial control systems (ICS), priorities are different compared to a traditional corporate environment. Indeed, an IT server shutting down unexpectedly may frustrate users and cause financial damage, but an Operational Technology (OT) server shutting down unexpectedly may impact industrial equipment and possibly injure people. As a result, safety and reliability are top priorities for ICS and this is why the adoption of a strict risk assessment and compliance framework is paramount in the OT space.

To that end, the NERC CIP standards have significantly impacted the way electric utilities in North America are deploying and configuring the firewalls protecting their critical cyber assets. This is particularly important in the context of the SolarWinds attack since understanding trusted communication paths and data flows can directly help mitigate and prevent not only current but also future cyber attacks. It could even be said that better network segmentation could have prevented the breach of the SolarWinds build environment in the first place. To quote from Tom Alrich’s article:

The software build environment would need to be protected in a similar fashion to how the Electronic Security Perimeter (ESP) is required to be protected by the NERC CIP standards – in other words, there should be no direct connection to the internet, and any connection to the IT network should be carefully circumscribed through measures like those required by CIP-005.

At Network Perception, we know CIP-005 quite well since we have designed NP-View and NP-Live with the specific goal of helping the NERC industry with implementation and control of CIP-005 requirements. Following up on Tom’ suggestion, we are providing practical guidance in the section below about how CIP-005 could be leveraged by any organization that has critical systems to protect, whether they reside in the IT or the OT space.

Hardening Network Segmentation with CIP-005

NERC CIP spans multiple reliability standards, ranging from categorizing critical cyber assets (CIP-002) to personnel and training (CIP-004), as well as incident reporting (CIP-008) and configuration change management (CIP-010). The standard that is explored in this article is CIP-005: Electronic Security Perimeter. Before listing the requirements, it is important to understand the terminology which is provided in the NERC Glossary. Here is the summarized version:

  • The Bulk Electric System (BES) is defined to identify the most critical systems to protect. In the electric industry, the BES covers transmission elements operated at 100 kV or higher. The concept of BES could be translated to other industries. For instance, the systems storing and transmitting credit card information in the payment industry. 
  • A Cyber Asset (CA) is a programmable electronic device, which includes computers, servers, and connected equipment.
  • A BES Cyber Asset (BCA) is a cyber asset that can impact the BES within 15 minutes. This definition is important because it allows us to separate mission-critical systems from the rest. 
  • An Electronic Security Perimeter (ESP) is the logical border surrounding a network to which BCAs are connected. 
  • An Electronic access control and monitoring system (EACMS) is a cyber asset that performs access control or monitoring—like a firewall or an intrusion prevention system.
  • An Electronic access point (EAP) is a cyber asset interface on an ESP that allows routable communication. For example, a network interface on a firewall.
  • A Protected Cyber Asset (PCA) is a cyber asset inside the ESP that is not a BCA.
  • An Interactive Remote Access (IRA) is a user-initiated remote network access that uses a routable protocol. An IRA allows us to identify trusted communication paths and separate them from non-interactive system-to-system communications. 
  • An Intermediate Systems (IS) is a cyber asset performing access control to restrict IRA to only authorized users. Typically, an IS is a jump host on which a user has to authenticate before accessing a critical resource.

The diagram below illustrates a network with ten nodes, among which three nodes are BCA (the crown jewels) and all communications to the BCA have to go through a firewall (the EACMS). An ESP has been defined around the BCA and also includes a non-critical node (the PCA). Since the PCA resides in the same broadcast domain with the BCA, it has to be protected with the same criticality level. Finally, an IS (jump host) enables users to connect to the ESP through an interactive session (for instance, SSH or Remote Desktop). 

 

 

Now that we understand the CIP-005 terminology, we can list the five requirement parts that electric utilities with medium and high impact cyber systems have to comply with:

  • CIP-005 R1.1: All applicable Cyber Assets connected to a network via a routable protocol shall reside within a defined ESP
  • CIP-005 R1.2: All External Routable Connectivity must be through an identified Electronic Access Point (EAP)
  • CIP-005 R1.3: Require inbound and outbound access permissions, including the reason for granting access, and deny all other access by default
  • CIP-005 R2.1: Utilize an Intermediate System such that the Cyber Asset initiating Interactive Remote Access does not directly access an applicable Cyber Asset
  • CIP-005 R2.2: Interactive Remote Access sessions must be encrypted to the Intermediate System to protect the confidentiality and integrity of the communications

In summary, utilities have to (1) identify their critical systems and the networks in which they are connected, (2) protect those networks with firewalls, (3) ensure that firewall access rules are justified and follow a principle of least privilege, (4) ensure that interactive remote connections go through a well-identified jump host, and (5) ensure that those interactive remote connections are encrypted outside of the critical networks. This means that critical systems should be in a separate network zone and not have direct access to the corporate network and the Internet.

Coming back to the SolarWinds attack and the software vendor industry at large, here is how the CIP-005 requirements could be adopted to better protect the digital supply chain:

  • Step 1: We should start by translating the concept of the Bulk Electric System (BES) to the software industry. We are suggesting the Critical Build Environment (CBE) that would cover all systems used to compile, package, and deploy a software application for production.
  • Step 2: We then identify CCA, the cyber assets that are either part of the CBE or can connect directly to the CBE.
  • Step 3: We define an ESP to segment the CCA in a clearly-defined network zone and ensure that there are firewalls to control inbound and outbound connections to the ESP. The access lists should prevent CCA from being directly accessible externally, especially from assets in the corporate network and the Internet.
  • Step 4: We deploy jump hosts to allow engineers and devops to access CCA through interactive remote sessions and we ensure that multi-factor authentication as well as encryption are correctly configured. 

There is, of course, a cost to implementing this framework, but it pales in comparison to the impact of a sophisticated supply chain attack such as the one that targeted SolarWinds. This is work-in-progress and we invite you to start a conversation with your team. If you have questions or would like to make suggestions on how this framework could be applied to different industries, please drop us a note at info@network-perception.com.

Accelerate Incident Response with Next-generation Network Access Visualization

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“If you really want to protect your network, you really have to know your network”

The advice stated by Rob Joyce (former Chief of Tailored Access Operation at the NSA) in his presentation during the USENIX Enigma conference is gaining further importance in light of the recent SolarWinds attack. For incident response teams who had to investigate the breach inside their environment, a lack of detailed knowledge on networks and connected assets turned their investigation into month-long efforts filled with frustration. The issue of network visibility and clear understanding of network access is affecting most organizations. Two of the top three service engagement findings published in the Dragos 2020 ICS Cybersecurity Year in Review last week are:

  • 90% of service engagements included a finding around lack of visibility across OT networks
  • 88% of service engagements included a finding about improper network segmentation

The core challenge behind these findings comes from the growing complexity of network configurations. A typical firewall configuration includes thousands of statements defining interface settings, access-control lists, and object groups among other categories. Similar to a programming language, network device configuration have bugs that can lead to unexpected consequences, such as enforcing network segmentation partially instead of fully.

Read-only Network Visualization Solutions to the Rescue

The speed at which incident response teams can answer key questions during an attack is crucial to prevent a catastrophic failure. For instance, they may need to understand which port and services are accessible when accessing the control network from a jump host connected to the corporate network. In addition, they need to be able to answer this type of question without relying on network management toolset that can write into the network, since they may be part of the issue (case in point: the SolarWinds Orion application). For these reasons, incident response teams need to be equipped with their own highly-usable solutions that can run outside of the network fabric. This means either offline or through an indirect and readonly connection.

This is an approach that we know well since we spent the last few years training network engineers and cybersecurity analysts to leverage NP-View and NP-Live in order to gain a clear understanding of their networks. The workflow consists in rapidly building a topology map from network device configuration files that serves as a foundation to communicate efficiently among different teams. The map needs to be extremely easy to navigate and understand by both technical and non-technical users. Similar to a heads-up display (HUD) in an aircraft, complex network constructs need to be presented with the correct level of abstraction in order to convey enough details without being overwhelming. A key feature to achieve this objective is to be able to generate a stepping-stone access map.

Breakthrough Insights with Stepping-stone Access Maps

A stepping-stone access map combines end-to-end connections inferred with a path analysis into multi-hop connections. Each hop, or stepping stone, could be used by an attacker to move laterally. For example, a vulnerable web server that is accessible in a DMZ could be exploited and used as a stepping stone to penetrate further into a protected network. In the example below, a vulnerable data historian was selected at the bottom of the map (highlighted with dark circles) and NP-Live analyzed access rules and routes in all the firewalls (red-brick icons) in order to highlight:

  • Nodes that can be directly accessed from the data historian (in red)
  • Nodes that can be indirectly accessed from the data historian (in orange)

An indirect access means that coming from the data historian, an attacker would have to compromise a red node before being able to access an orange node. This type of visualization provides important insights to understand how defense-in-depth is implemented and whether access policy gaps exist. Moreover, it helps everyone to understand critical asset exposure without having to become a firewall or a network expert. For incident response teams, this means precious minutes saved getting to the information they need to take action and also explaining the situation to their colleagues and their leadership.

 

Stepping-stone access map generated by NP-Live to visualize which nodes are directly and indirectly accessible from a vulnerable host

 

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How Can Critical Infrastructure Facilities Become Cyber-Resilient?

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Network Perception CEO Dr. Robin Berthier, recently joined Luke Fox on The Trust Revolution to discuss cybersecurity in relation to recent attacks on several critical infrastructure industries. Berthier explains, “Utilities have modernized, and that connectivity, especially around equipment and IoT, increases the risk for disruption and attacks.” He elaborates with specific examples and provides best practices.

Berthier also cautions against a singular focus on preventing attack, as that effort is futile. To best prepare for future threats, he recommends building cyber resiliency with an emphasis on “defense in depth or multiple layers of security.” Companies must change the way they think about cybersecurity and prioritize building resiliency.

“It’s impossible to keep everything outside of the perimeter, so design a system with this in mind. Software vulnerabilities are only growing. There were 6000 in 2016 and 18,000 in 2020.”

To achieve cyber resiliency within your organization, he says, “Visibility is key. Know what you have in your network and keep it up to date. Also, follow the principle of least privilege for applications.”

Berthier also emphasized that cyber resiliency and cybersecurity must be a concern for more than just IT teams. For true resiliency, systems need to work harmoniously across a diverse set of tools, and teams need to work together to ensure business continuity.

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Introduction to NERC CIP Vulnerability Assessment

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Compliance to cybersecurity standards, such as NERC CIP, can become an opportunity for organizations to establish standardized processes and gain efficiency. In the electric industry, this opportunity means building a culture of risk assessment and mitigation across all the parties involved with managing, regulating, and overseeing the grid, with the goal of maintaining a more secure and reliable grid in the process. CIP-010 Requirement R3 stipulates that a paper vulnerability assessment (PVA) and an active vulnerability assessment (AVA) need to be performed annually and every three years, respectively.

Vulnerability Assessment Requirements

Per CIP-010, Requirement R3, two types of Vulnerability Assessments are identified. There are requirements for an annual Paper Vulnerability Assessment (PVA) and every-three-years Active Vulnerability Assessment (AVA). For each assessment type, the Guidelines and Technical Basis (G&TB) strongly encourage entities to include at least the following elements, taken from NIST SP 800-115, as well as reviewing this NIST Technical Guide for guidance on approaches and methods to execute each:

  • Network Discovery
  • Network Port and Service Identification
  • Vulnerability Review/Scanning
  • Wireless Review/Scanning

Active Vulnerability Assessments vs. Paper Vulnerability Assessments

Per the G&TB in CIP-010, the following are strongly encouraged tasks for a PVA and an AVA, as well as the associated CIP-005, CIP-007, and CIP-010 Requirements and Parts for which they may provide detective controls:

Paper Vulnerability Assessment Tasks

Task Description Requirement Parts
Network Discovery A review of network connectivity to identify all Electronic Access Points. CIP-005 R1 Part 1.2
Network Port and Service Identification A review to verify that all enabled ports and services have an appropriate business justification. CIP-007 R1 Part 1.1
Vulnerability Review A review of security rule-sets and configurations including controls for default accounts, passwords, and network management community strings. CIP-005 R1 Part 1.3

CIP-007 R5 Parts 5.4 – 5.7

Wireless Review Identification of common types of wireless networks and a review of their controls if they are in any way used for BCS communications. CIP-005 R1 Part 1.1

Active Vulnerability Assessment Tasks

Task Description Requirement Parts
Network Discovery Use of active discovery tools to discover active devices and identify communication paths. CIP-005 R1 Parts 1.1 – 1.2
Network Port and Service Identification Use of active discovery tools to discover open ports and services. CIP-007 R1 Part 1.1

CIP-010 R1 Parts 1.1.2 – 1.1.4

Vulnerability Scanning Use of a vulnerability scanning tool to identify known vulnerabilities associated with services running on open ports. CIP-007 R2 Part 2.3

CIP-007 R5 Parts 5.2, 5.4 – 5.7

Wireless Scanning Use of a wireless scanning tool to discover wireless signals and networks in the physical perimeter of a BCS. CIP-005 R1 Part 1.1

While both PVA and AVA tasks are used as detective controls for complying with the above requirements, the controls provided in AVA tasks are more effective. At a high level, the review of evidence in PVA tasks simply identify issues associated with the documenting and/or maintaining of that evidence. AVA tasks, however, include the collection of fresh (updated) evidence that is reviewed and analyzed. AVA tasks can not only identify those documentation issues, they can also identify issues associated with processes followed to meet their respective compliance obligations. As an example, the review of network port and service evidence in a PVA assumes that port and service list is accurate when identifying missing or insufficient business justifications. In an AVA, the network port and service assessment adds the compilation of a fresh network port and service list to compare to existing evidence. This comparison can shine a light on issues related to the methods followed when the list of ports and services were initially collected, how dynamic port ranges associated with services were determined, or if unaccounted for software was installed enabling a previously undocumented port.

As described above, executing PVAs and AVAs have a much greater importance to an entity’s CIP compliance program than simply complying with CIP-010 Requirement 3 Parts 3.1 and 3.2. While automating PVA and AVA tasks improve the efficiency with which the tasks can be executed, that automation also eliminates instances of potential human error when executing the tasks. Thus, an automated solution, such as NP-View, can play an important role to assist entities with automating a number of the tasks above. NP-View is also leveraged by NERC regional auditors for validating evidence during audits.

Reviewing network path originating from or terminating at the ESP to verify interactive remote access

Preparation

In either a PVA or AVA, one key factor for success is a detailed VA plan, which should include:

  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Preparation, including:
    • Personal protective equipment requirements,
    • Site access requests,
    • System access requests,
    • Change request tickets, and
    • VA data storage location.
  • Data collection
  • Onsite activities
  • Data analysis

Another key success factor is entity subject matter expert (SME) engagement in the VA process. Regardless of how well versed the VA team members are in the VA process, inaccurate or incomplete data collected from the Cyber Assets ensures an unsuccessful VA. Additionally, SMEs typically provide the VA team with a more detailed view of the networks than can be collected from network diagrams alone.

Requirements

At a minimum, the needed data inputs for conducting a NERC CIP Vulnerability Assessment include:

  • NERC CIP Cyber Asset Inventory lists, including:
    • Unique identifier, such as hostname,
    • IP addresses and subnet mask, and
    • Electronic Security Perimeter (ESP).
  • List of Intermediate Systems,
  • List of ESP networks with included network subnets and their respective Electronic Access Points (EAPs),
  • CIP-007 R1 Part 1.1 ports and services justification evidence, and
  • CIP-007 R5 Parts 5.4 – 5.7 password controls evidence.
  • Configuration files in format readable by NP View

NP-View uses device configuration files from firewalls, routers, and switches to create a network diagram that allows compliance auditors and other users to understand objects, routes, permissions, and policies in a user readable format. To input the device files in the correct format, follow the instructions on the NP Knowledge Base. If a particular hardware/software platform is not supported, please contact support@network-perception.com to start the implementation of a new configuration parser.

Next Steps

Having a thorough, efficient, and repeatable methodology for vulnerability assessments lays the groundwork for its successful execution. Executing that methodology with personnel that both have expertise in the NERC CIP Reliability Standards and experience conducting vulnerability assessments with automated tools is crucial to that success. NP-View allows those executing vulnerability assessments to more efficiently complete a number of the tasks while minimizing the risk of human error during the more tedious ones. The time saving and completeness aspects are critical as network environment becomes more complex and our resources remain limited. 

This introduction is part of the Better, Faster NERC CIP Vulnerability Assessments Using NP-View white paper, which includes additional information and step-by-step instructions on how to best leverage NP-View during your CVA. For any questions or feedback, please feel free to contact the Network Perception team or the Network & Security Technologies (N&ST) team who co-wrote the white paper.

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NERC CIP Compliance Best Practices

5 Best Practices for NERC CIP Compliance

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Compliance teams in charge of verifying network configurations are meeting the dual challenge of highly technical and dynamic environments. On one hand, networks are becoming larger and more complex. On the other hand, organizations are continuously evolving their technology, use cases, and personnel. As a result, disruptions can impact the ability of compliance teams to ensure that their regulatory framework is properly followed. In this post, we are providing 5 of the top best practices we gathered over the past few years as we developed solutions for cybersecurity and network compliance teams.

5 Best Practices to Achieve NERC CIP Compliance

 

1. Ensure that network device configuration files are backed-up and versioned

One of the key building blocks of a network compliance program is the ability to go back in time and understand precisely how firewalls, routers, and switches have been configured and modified. This means setting up a backup system to keep a copy of network device configuration files at least once a day. It also requires defining file storage and data retention policy to organize and timestamp every configuration version for at least a year. An efficient backup system will enable compliance analysts to search and retrieve records when preparing for an audit.

2. Verify that network topology diagrams and asset categorizations are up-to-date

We cannot protect what we do not know and accurate knowledge about an organizations network starts with a complete asset inventory. Once the inventory has been created, a process should be put in place to periodically update it. This also applies to the network topology diagram which should clearly indicate where critical equipment is located and how networks are segmented into different access zones. A network map is crucial to enabling the compliance team to gain the same clear understanding of configurations in order to work efficiently with the security and networking teams.

3. Build baseline access policies that include rule justifications

Many organizations have a process to add new rules to firewalls, but they lack an efficient process to remove them. As a result, rulesets become bloated after a few years and nobody dares to clean up old rules for fear of breaking something. The solution is for the compliance team to define baseline access policies that correctly implement internal controls and respect regulatory requirements. This way, network engineers have a reference to use when evaluating changes and compliance teams can easily check for deviations from the baseline. It is also important to include rule justification directly in the baseline record so one can understand the business reasons for specific accesses.

4. Monitor baseline changes over time

Once baselines have been defined, a process should be put in place to continuously or at least periodically monitor changes. It is recommended that compliance teams use a system that is independent of the IT change management process in order to verify changes externally. Our advice is to leverage read-only configuration monitoring solutions that compliance analysts can easily use without having to add to the workload of the IT and networking team.

5. Track progress towards cyber resiliency

Finally, compliance teams should support the goal of their organization to become cyber resilient. This means gaining the ability to recover from and adjust rapidly to cyber risks. In practice, once a compliance framework has been established, the compliance team should organize periodic meetings with other stakeholders to review progress towards implementing resiliency techniques and to ensure everyone remains aligned.

 

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What is Cyber Resiliency, and why is it important?

By Blog
TL;DR: Cyber Resiliency for Utilities
  • Increasing pressure from cyber risks is a top challenge for organizations
  • The key to succeed in an adversarial environment is to become cyber resilient

The State of Cyber Security in 2021

Our dependence on cyber systems is increasing every day and the frequency, severity, and sophistication of cyber attacks has been rising along with it. The size and complexity of networks have also grown exponentially, continuously exposing organizations to larger attack surfaces. As a result, companies are investing in cyber security solutions to keep the latest malware outside of their infrastructure. As shown by the recent Solarwinds breach, cyber security monitoring solutions themselves can become an attack vector and, as experienced by the 18,000 customers affected, cleaning up after the breach is an extremely stressful endeavor.

What Is Cyber Resiliency

The goal of eliminating all cyber threats is futile since organizations will continue to depend on cyber systems and attackers will keep targeting them. To succeed in overcoming this arms race requires investing in cyber resiliency. This means the ability to recover from, and adjust rapidly to cyber risks. Similar to the immune system, that has developed protection, detection, and evolution capabilities over hundreds of thousands of generations to keep organisms alive despite the constant assault from viruses and diseases, organizations have to embrace the principles of cyber resiliency to keep operating despite cyber threats.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published the Special Publication 800-160 Volume 2 to present objectives, approaches, and techniques surrounding the development of cyber resilient systems. In particular, the following diagram represents the relationship among cyber resiliency constructs: 

Cyber Resilience

How to Achieve Cyber Resilience

With the intention of creating a cyber resilient organization, here are the first steps to take:

  1. Define a risk management strategy that will identify acceptable and unacceptable risks along with the resources allocated to mitigate them at the organizational, business process, and system levels. 
  2. Prioritize goals and objectives according to the specificities of the organization, before being implemented through a set of techniques such as analytic monitoring, non-persistence, and privilege restriction.

The first objective of cyber resiliency is to understand. It is defined in the NIST publication as maintaining useful representations of mission and business dependencies and the status of resources with respect to possible adversity. Indeed, we cannot protect what we do not know and in the domain of information systems and networks, it is paramount for an organization to gain and maintain accurate visibility on their infrastructure: which assets are installed, how those assets are configured, and how access policies are effectively segmenting networks into distinct zones. It is also vital for first responders to not only maintain situational awareness but also to reduce the time between receipt of threat intelligence and determination of its relevance in order to adapt rapidly to adversarial conditions.

Helping You Build a Culture of Resilience

In this blog post series, we will present cyber resiliency techniques that can be applied to networks and access policies. Our goal is to provide practical advice to: 

1) Security teams can adopt key techniques to build cyber resilience over time, 

2) Compliance teams can assess and track progress to help guide their organizations, and

3) The utility industry can better understand the importance of, and how to build a more cyber resilient organization.

 

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Cyber Resilience for Utilities

Lessons Learned From the SolarWinds Compromise

By Blog

What Happened:

The world of cybersecurity was shaken on Dec. 13 when news broke about the compromise of multiple federal agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and parts of the Pentagon, along with the majority of Fortune 500 companies. 

Investigation revealed a sophisticated supply chain attack against the SolarWinds Orion software, a popular IT monitoring and management platform used by tens of thousands of organizations all over the world. About 18,000 customers downloaded the tainted versions of the Orion platform that were released between March 2020 and June 2020.

 Once those releases were installed, the malware activated and hid in network traffic as Orion’s native protocol called the Orion Improvement Program (OIP), allowing it to obscure its activity. Upon discovery, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued an emergency directive urging all federal civilian agencies to disconnect or power down immediately instances of the Orion software. 

The Impact:

The impact on electric utilities is not yet known but there is high probability that some of the compromised organizations belong to the energy sector. Cybersecurity response teams have been working around the clock to identify whether they installed the compromised updates and which areas of their systems and networks could be affected. 

NERC and the E-ISAC have actively engaged with industry partners to help address the situation. Dealing with supply chain vulnerabilities has been on the forefront for NERC with the introduction of the CIP-013 standard that became effective on Oct. 1, 2020. This standard requires electric utilities to develop and implement a plan that includes security controls for supply chain management for industrial control system hardware, software, and services associated with bulk electric system operations.

What We’ve Learned to Date:

This unprecedented cyberattack will have significant impact on the way organizations handle supply chain, system and network accesses, as well as incident response. We can already extract three important highlights:

  1. It is paramount for an organization to gain and maintain accurate visibility on their networks: which assets are installed, how those assets are configured, and how access policies are effectively segmenting networks into distinct zones. This visibility should extend to vendors that are directly connected to bulk electric system equipments.
  2. Organizations must follow a strict separation of duties and responsibilities with respect to IT and OT management and monitoring platforms. Having a single solution to both modify network rulesets and monitor architecture leads to singles points of failure.
  3. While the electric industry has been prepared for the possibility of supply chain attacks through recent regulations enforced by NERC, the magnitude of this incident shows that vendors and security teams alone cannot mitigate the risk entirely and it is crucial for organizations, vendors, and governments to work together towards improving the way we deliver and update software.

Next Steps:

In the short term, incident response and compliance teams should follow a step-by-step playbook to determine which systems are directly affected and the scope of the clean up and rebuilding efforts. In the longer term, organizations should evaluate their supply chain risk mitigation plan and ensure accurate real-time visibility on both their network firewall rulesets and in-depth traffic activity monitoring and logging solutions.

 

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What Does My NERC CIP-005 Compliance Preparedness Score Mean?

By Blog

For critical infrastructure organizations, building and maintaining a compliance program is an essential priority to ensure safety and reliability for customers. To achieve compliance that is both sustainable and manageable, it requires total organizational commitment to a culture of compliance that provides transparency, standardized processes and reliable data.

In reality, compliance is best viewed in the form of a preparation continuum, a journey that digitally transforms organizations from reactive to proactive, manual to automated, ad-hoc to standardized and non-compliance to compliance.

At Network Perception, we’ve developed an online tool to evaluate your NERC CIP-005 compliance program.

After taking this evaluation, you will receive a custom report with your preparedness score as well as specific recommendations for improvement as well as practical ideas to build-up your compliance and audit readiness.

How To Use Your Score

Your preparation score will fall between 1-100 percent (%). In the following chart we provide some additional context around your score within five distinct levels of preparation evolution, (1) Not Started Yet (2) Getting Started, (3) In Process, (4) Ready and (5) Automated.

Generally speaking, a utility that has a high preparation score has a culture of compliance featuring accountability, alignment, defined processes and effective technology.

Alternately, a lower preparation score can offer critical insights on where improvements and resources are most needed to achieve future compliance program sustainability.

Now that you know where you fall on the NERC CIP-005 compliance preparation continuum, you can now focus your time, energy and resources on addressing those critical gaps in your organization, team, process and technology.

Need help?

If you have questions regarding your NERC CIP-005 compliance preparation score and/or looking for ideas on how to use this information to improve your audit and compliance readiness, please contact us for a free consultation.

 

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