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Q: Is the TSA pipeline security directive a step forward or backwards? A: Backwards

Tom Alrich's picture
Supply chain Cybersecurity Risk Management and NERC CIP-013 consulting Tom Alrich LLC

Currently with Tom Alrich LLC, I provide strategy and compliance consulting to electric power industry clients and vendors to the power industry, focusing on the NERC CIP cybersecurity standards....

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  • Oct 13, 2021 3:37 pm GMT
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I was recently given the opportunity to review a redacted copy of the TSA pipeline cybersecurity directive issued July 19. I was eager to do this, in order to answer two questions: A) Is this a step forward from existing OT cyber regulations – especially NERC CIP? If it is, it could provide a guide to how CIP can be remade to become much more effective and efficient than it currently is. Or B) is it a step backwards, meaning that if anything it will furnish a good object lesson in how not to regulate OT cybersecurity?

My answer….drum roll, please…is that the TSA directive is a big step backwards. As such, it will provide us with some great lessons on how not to regulate OT, and especially how not to revamp NERC CIP. I’ve listed below what I think are some of the big failings of the directive, but I’ve restated them as lessons learned for any agency or organization that might someday find themselves writing or rewriting OT cybersecurity standards.

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  1. Involve the industry in writing/rewriting the standards.[i] A Washington Post article quoted an industry executive as saying the pipeline industry was only given three days to respond to a draft of the standards. Of course, giving them only three days was the equivalent of saying, “Here you go, you bastards. This is all you deserve, and this is all you’ll get!” I’m sure if the industry had had more time to respond, they would have said things like I’m saying below, and maybe the TSA directive would turn out to be more effective than it will almost certainly prove to be.
  2. Don’t make the standards secret. What purpose does that serve? And more importantly, how could the standards ever be implemented unless the whole organization knows about them, and each person understands what role they can play in making sure the implementation is successful? As it is, I believe that whoever drafted the directive (Darth Vader?) somehow got the idea that cybersecurity for a large organization can be achieved by having a tiny group implement a relatively small number of very technical – and untried at scale – measures, while keeping the rest of the organization completely in the dark about them. Here’s the real story: This_approach_could_never_work. Period. Unless you involve everybody in the organization to some degree, you’ll end up spending a lot of time and money implementing a bunch of controls that will be obsoleted within months. The only lasting change will come from the organization itself. No organizational change, no improvement.
  3. Don’t impose requirements that are literally impossible to comply with. There are requirements that use words like “ensure”, “prevent”, “prohibit”, “eliminate”, “block”, etc. As if there were any way that an organization could promise that they will ensure, prevent, prohibit, eliminate, or block anything in the constantly-changing world of cyber attacks. Requirements like these will probably end up with zero compliance as written. However, this result may be hidden because “compliance” isn’t defined at all! Which leads me to the next point.
  4. Define how compliance with the requirements will be assessed. There are a few of the requirements that state how they’ll be assessed: through self-assessment within a certain time period. But there’s no discussion about auditing, and it seems that it will be entirely up to the pipeline operators to report on their state of compliance with each of the requirements. As well as to determine how often they will report, etc. -  since I see little or nothing in the directive that requires any ongoing reporting (although it will certainly be required). There is a requirement for an annual third-party evaluation of the “Owner/Operator’s” OT “design and architecture”. As far as I can see, those are the only occasions when someone other than the pipeline operator will look at what they’ve put in place. But there’s no indication that these evaluations will in any way constitute an “audit”. I’m not a big fan of prescriptive audits, but I think there does need to be something more than simply a review of documentation.
  5. Don’t take new ideas – that haven’t been discussed a lot in public forums - and turn them into requirements. The directive includes very specific requirements based on technologies about which I’ve seen very little (if any) public discussion: “passive DNS”, “known malicious IP addresses” (is it really likely a bad guy would keep using the same IP address?), “SOAR” (I know generally what this means, but there must be some specific meaning in order for this to be the basis for a prescriptive requirement), and others.
  6. Finally, make sure you’re addressing the really important requirements. For example, the widespread outages caused by the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack (the inspiration for this directive, in case you hadn’t guessed that) were due to the fact that Colonial felt compelled to shut down their OT network, even though the ransomware had never spread to it. Obviously, there was some link between the two networks that necessitated the OT shutdown. What was that link? The directive goes through all of the usual suspects and tries to address every one of them. There are requirements for physical and logical segmentation, a DMZ, isolating “unrelated sub-processes” (a wonderful undefined term), monitoring and filtering traffic between different trust levels, implementing zones and conduits, prohibiting OT protocols from traversing the IT network – just about every remedy you might find in an ICS security textbook. Yep, they addressed everything except for what caused Colonial’s OT network to be shut down. That one they missed, although you can read about it here. Oh well, that’s the only one they missed. Not so bad, no?

I don’t think I’ll surprise you by saying I don’t think very much of the TSA directive for the pipeline industry. What would I suggest they could have done instead? Here’s a radical idea: Why couldn’t they have ordered pipeline companies to implement a cybersecurity risk management program based on the NIST Cyber Security Framework? Admittedly, this wouldn’t have been seen as an innovation, and it wouldn’t have resulted in a Full Employment Act for cybersecurity consultants who can now put themselves out as experts familiar with the arcane niches of the TSA directive.

But it would have been a better way to secure the pipeline industry, on both IT and OT sides. And that ain’t hay.

Any opinions expressed in this blog post are strictly mine and are not necessarily shared by any of the clients of Tom Alrich LLC. Nor are they shared by the National Technology and Information Administration’s Software Component Transparency Initiative, for which I volunteer as co-leader of the Energy SBOM Proof of Concept. If you would like to comment on what you have read here, I would love to hear from you. Please email me at tom@tomalrich.com.


[i] Note the TSA document is a one-time directive, not a set of ongoing standards. DHS will institute a formal rulemaking process at some point, to draft the ongoing standards. If so, I hope they’ll take a look at these lessons learned.

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