Cyber Attacks On Critical Infrastructures—A Risk To The Nation

There has been a great deal of research related to cyber attacks and vulnerabilities and critical infrastructure, but there is an incomplete understanding of the cascading effects a cyber-caused disruption could have on other critical national infrastructures and the ability of the affected infrastructures to deliver services. This case study describes a cyber-attack-consequence assessment process developed to coordinate Sandia National Laboratories’ capabilities in assessing the effects of a cyber attack and in assessing the infrastructure impacts and economic consequences of those attacks.

Step 1 of this process identifies a cyber attack, and Step 2 identifies a system vulnerability that will allow a cyber attack to be successful. These two steps may occur simultaneously because a cyber attack is likely to attempt to exploit a system vulnerability to ensure success.

Step 3 of this process is the assessment of the effects of a successful cyber attack on a critical infrastructure control system. This step answers the question “How does the attack affect the control system and the components that are connected to the system?” Simulators that model control systems can be used to assess how the control system will react to the attack. This step can be informed by general heuristics, or rules-of-thumb, about the structure of the control systems to help inform the assessment.

During Step 4 of the process, the impact of the control system effects to the critical infrastructure being attacked (and possibly other, related infrastructure) is assessed. Infrastructure models are used to determine how the control system effects might spill over to other parts of the infrastructure that are not controlled by the attacked system. The result of this step is an infrastructure-impact scenario, which is a specific scenario of how the infrastructure is affected by the cyber attack. The scenario should specify the particular components of the infrastructure that are affected, as well as the details (time, severity, etc.) of the impacts.

Finally, during Step 5 of the process, the economic consequences of the infrastructure disruptions are found using the infrastructure-impact scenario. If the infrastructure-impact scenario constructed in Step 4 finds that the cyber attack may create disruptions in infrastructure, there will likely be economic ramifications to the loss. Economic models are available that can be used to assess the economic consequences of infrastructure disruptions caused by cyber attacks.

A cyber attack on a control system may have effects beyond those of the attacked infrastructure identified in the infrastructure-impact step of the process. Infrastructures are interdependent, which means that a failure in one component may spill over to other components of the same infrastructure as well as associated infrastructures and industries. This interdependence is clear in the electrical power industry because almost all industries require electrical power in some manner. Disruptions of infrastructure may also spill over to economies. Economic activity depends on the infrastructure. A sustained loss of electric power, for example, may cause economic activity to nearly stop.

The consequences of infrastructure disruptions are complicated and difficult or impossible to measure in many cases and may vary greatly in their consequences. An outage at a single generator during a period with adequate reserve capacity is unlikely to disrupt service. Spot prices might be affected by the outage, but there will likely be little change to overall economic activity. The consequences of an outage that results in unserved load are more difficult to measure. For a short load-shedding event, the economic consequences will likely be light because many short-term economic losses are recoverable. For example, consumer purchases can be delayed to another day or time, and interrupted manufacturers can draw on inventories that can be replenished over time. Many of the losses that do occur may be difficult to quantify. For example, short losses of power chemical plants sometimes cause the release of chemicals and have the potential to cause accidents.

This case study focuses on Sandia’s capabilities in carrying out the cyber-attack-consequence assessment process using electric power control systems as an example. The process can be used with other critical infrastructure control systems with modifications to existing capabilities and the addition of infrastructure-impact simulations for new infrastructures.

Of the three steps of the cyber-attack-consequence assessment process focused upon in this case study, the systems-effects step and the infrastructure-impact step need to be modified from the electric power walk-through. For the final step (economic consequence assessment), the REAcct tool can continue to use the same type of infrastructure-disruption scenario as an input (specifications of which counties are affected, how long the disruption lasts, what fraction of their area is affected, and what fraction of economic activity is disrupted), provided that the necessary mappings of infrastructure disruptions to economic disruptions are made. Many of the economic assessment tools that filled the gaps of REAcct are similarly flexible or can include new infrastructures by expanding their models.

System Effect
The process walk-through detailed methods and tools that can currently be used to simulate a cyber attack on an electric power control system and assess the impacts to the electric power grid. Although these tools are tailored to the electric power industry, some tools, such as the VCSE, can be modified to different infrastructures. Other types of physical infrastructure can be simulated by either interfacing existing tools with the VCSE or creating new tools.

Infrastructure Impact
The infrastructure-impact step of the process maps changes in critical infrastructure control systems that are caused by cyber attacks to overall changes in infrastructure. The tools necessary to assess the infrastructure impact of cyber attacks will vary depending on the infrastructure being simulated, especially for infrastructures that have complex interdependencies among components. Thus, models of the specific infrastructure will be useful for developing a detailed and reliable infrastructure-impact scenario that shows how cyber attacks against a control system affect an infrastructure.

Economic Consequence
As mentioned earlier, the economic consequence tools are very flexible and can accommodate a variety of infrastructures, provided that the infrastructure-impact scenario can be mapped to a specific economic disruption. This mapping may be more difficult in infrastructures other than electric power. Most economic activity is highly dependent on electric power, but the same cannot be said for many other infrastructures. For example, a cyber attack on water treatment that resulted in a boil order would likely be more of an inconvenience than an event that halts all economic activity. In the extreme case of an infrastructure impact scenario where all water service was disrupted for a municipality, all economic activity would not be halted; much economic activity does not require water, and there are many common, alternative ways of obtaining water (such as wells).

More detailed economic consequence models, such as the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC-Agent-Based Laboratory for Economics (N-ABLE™)), may be able to better model infrastructure disruptions that lead to more subtle economic disruptions than do interruptions in electric power. Heuristics can be used (or developed) to aid REAcct in mapping an infrastructure disruption to an economic disruption.

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