The Cabin Door Is Closed, Please Power Down All Electronic Devices...

I fly a lot. More than many. Sometimes over 50%. As such, I have some experience with the consumer side of the commercial aviation business. I am by no means an expert. Recently, I was asked to speak at an air traffic controller's conference on the subject of cyber security in the Next-Generation Air Transportation System. I was there to provide a perspective from the outside, more of a security technology discussion for what works in the overall CI/KR space. It was a panel, so the slide deck was short - which was good for me, because again, I'm not an expert in aviation. The panel had current and ex-FAA staffers, university professors, aviation consultants from the defense industry/sector and me. Do you remember the old Sesame Street song "one of these things is not like the other?" Throughout the event, I was constantly reaching for my smartphone to Google the acronyms that I'd never heard.

I had a similar newbie feeling when I started working in the electric power sector. Before then, I was just a consumer. I flipped the switch and expected the lights to come on. When the power went out at my house, I was the first to call my local utility and give them a piece of my mind as a paying customer. After all, us geeks can't live without our tech toys for longer than a few seconds. So the first time I actually spent more than five minutes on the Control Center floor, I was.. well.. floored. Even mild spring days in the 'shoulder months' can seem like a delicate balance of order and chaos. The electric system is interconnected, just like the aviation system. What happens in one area will quickly and directly affect other areas, some quite distant. The real-time seat-of-the-pants decisions by system operators is really what keeps the system running - not the technology. Sure, the technology is there, but it is only a tool.

I see a situation, whether it is Smart Grid in the power biz or the Next-Gen Air Transportation System in the aviation sector, where we are inserting a much wider technological distance between the human and the physical/kinetic endpoint. System operators are using ever-increasing layers of technology. Until fairly recently, they looked at some sort of analog or electro-mechanical instrumentation for operational decisions and then they would physically (manually) activate something. Today, we have operators using tools which are in turn, using other embedded tools, which may also be using further embedded tools - and so on. This can be a good thing for many reasons, but it can also be a bad thing. This trend, though perfectly natural - even expected, should be carefully monitored, carefully balanced. Especially when it involves critical infrastructure. We may even need to tip the scale toward sound security engineering instead of focusing solely the profit drivers. At least for a while.

We've ignored our critical infrastructures for so long that we are in desperate need of an overhaul. Nearly every one of the sectors in the National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP) could be called brittle. Some money is starting to flow to these areas for much needed upgrades but the legacy technology and the bleeding edge enhancements need to work together in the same interconnected system. This creates a 'base of sand' problem. Legacy devices are underpinning tomorrow's technology gizmos with incredible distance between the two ends of the spectrum. We need a security engineer to put their stamp on the blueprints BEFORE they get the permit to build. When adding to or modifying an existing structure, the structural engineers factor those old trusses, supports and cracks in the foundation into the new design. I don't want to discount the great work being done here, but I think few would disagree that we have a cart-before-the-horse situation.

  • The most common recommendations I heard at the recent aviation conference were:
  • Test bed for qualifying systems (approaching Certification and Accreditation)
  • Minimizing potential of supply chain attacks
  • Security Training for operators/controllers
  • Situational Awareness (and integrity of decision support data)
  • Information Sharing

Those of you following the power sector for the past few years should see some striking similarities. I'm willing to wager that nearly all CI/KR sectors are facing these same challenges. The only recommendation didn't see was slowing down to get security issues addressed in the design phase. I've been a security professional long enough to expect that, but I can't seem to bring myself to accept it - hence this post/rant.

Like nearly all of my posts, I am writing this as I fly home on a commercial airline. Now if only I can think of a solution to being crammed into a space smaller than my anatomical dimensions. I'm not important or rich enough for First Class seats. But every time I think I've got it bad, I remember my co-worker CJ and his 6'5" span. He's taller than most clearances at drive-thrus and parking garages. Unfortunately TSA frowns on bringing a crowbar to extract him from the seat.

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