Usually in espionage it's much easier to steal intelligence than it is to do physical harm. That's not true in the cyber domain, says Hayden. "If you penetrate a network for espionage purposes, you've already got everything you'll want for destruction," he says.
On the other hand, while it's impossible for a private company to defend itself from physical warfare, that's not true when it comes to cyber attacks. Every attack exploits a weakness. "By closing that vulnerability, you stop the teenage kid, the criminal and the cyber warrior," says Pescatore.
Computerized control systems are a potential problem area because the same systems are in use across many different types of critical infrastructure. "Where you used to turn dials or throw a switch, all of that is done electronically now," Schmidt says.
In addition, many industrial control systems that used to be "air-gapped" from the Internet are now connected to corporate networks for business reasons. "We've seen spreadsheets with thousands of control system components that are directly connected to the Internet. Some of those components contain known vulnerabilities that are readily exploitable without much sophistication," says Marty Edwards, director of control systems security at the Industrial Control Systems cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) at the DHS. The organization, with a staff that's grown tenfold to 400 in the past four years, offers control system security standards, shares threat data with critical infrastructure providers and has a rapid response team of "cyber ninjas," high-level control systems engineers and cyber security analysts who can be deployed at a moment's notice.
Last year, ICS-CERT issued 5,200 alerts and advisories to private industry and government. "[Edwards] had teams fly out seven times last year to help businesses respond to events that either took them offline or severely impacted operations," says Weatherford, who declined to provide details on the nature of those events.
Control systems also suffer from another major weakness: They're usually relatively old and can't easily be patched. "A lot of them were never designed to operate in a network environment, and they aren't designed to take upgrades," Schmidt says. "Its firmware is soldered onto the device, and the only way to fix it is to replace it." Since the systems were designed to last 10 to 20 years, organizations need to build protections around them until they can be replaced. In other cases, updates can be made, but operators have to wait for the service providers who maintain the equipment to do the patching.
So where should the industry go from here?
The place to start is with better standards and best practices, real-time detection and containment, and faster and more detailed information sharing both among critical infrastructure providers and with all branches of government.
While some progress has been made with standards at both the DHS and industry groups such as the NERC, some argue that government procurement policy could be used to drive higher security standards from manufacturers of hardware and software used to operate critical infrastructure. Today, no such policy exists across all government agencies.
"Government would be better off using its buying power to drive higher levels of security than trying to legislate higher levels of security," argues Pescatore. But the federal government doesn't require suppliers to meet a consistent set of security standards across all agencies.