Critical Infrastructure Protection:

Challenges and Efforts to Secure Control Systems

GAO-04-354: Published: Mar 15, 2004. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 2004.

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Computerized control systems perform vital functions across many of our nation's critical infrastructures. For example, in natural gas distribution, they can monitor and control the pressure and flow of gas through pipelines. In October 1997, the President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection emphasized the increasing vulnerability of control systems to cyber attacks. The House Committee on Government Reform and its Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census asked GAO to report on potential cyber vulnerabilities, focusing on (1) significant cybersecurity risks associated with control systems (2) potential and reported cyber attacks against these systems (3) key challenges to securing control systems and (4) efforts to strengthen the cybersecurity of control systems.

In addition to general cyber threats, which have been steadily increasing, several factors have contributed to the escalation of the risks of cyber attacks against control systems. These include the adoption of standardized technologies with known vulnerabilities and the increased connectivity of control systems to other systems. Control systems can be vulnerable to a variety of attacks, examples of which have already occurred. Successful attacks on control systems could have devastating consequences, such as endangering public health and safety. Securing control systems poses significant challenges, including limited specialized security technologies and lack of economic justification. The government, academia, and private industry have initiated efforts to strengthen the cybersecurity of control systems. The President's National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace establishes a role for DHS to coordinate with these entities to improve the cybersecurity of control systems. While some coordination is occurring, DHS's coordination of these efforts could accelerate the development and implementation of more secure systems. Without effective coordination of these efforts, there is a risk of delaying the development and implementation of more secure systems to manage our critical infrastructures.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should develop and implement a strategy for coordinating with the private sector and other government agencies to improve control system security, including an approach for coordinating the various ongoing efforts to secure control systems. This strategy should also be addressed in the comprehensive national infrastructure plan that the department is tasked to complete by December 2004.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although the Department of Homeland Security did not include guidance to help other agencies and industry coordinate with each other, it developed and implemented a strategy for coordinating with the private sector and other government agencies to improve control systems security.

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