SecurityBrief New Zealand logo
New Zealand's leading source of cybersecurity and cyber-attack news
Story image

Is voluntary cybersecurity enough for NZ's critical infrastructure?

By Contributor
Fri 6 May 2022

Article by Lateral Security, a Tesserent company, IT security consultant Jan Klinkner.

Critical infrastructure - that term by itself sounds impressive, maybe even distressing. But what makes critical infrastructure so significant? – To understand this, a reasonable step is to understand what critical infrastructure actually means.

What is New Zealand’s critical infrastructure?

The New Zealand Government defines critical (national) infrastructure in their recent Cyber Security Strategy (2019) as “Physical and digital assets, services, and supply chains, the disruption (loss, compromise) of which would severely impact the maintenance of national security, public safety, fundamental rights, and well-being of all New Zealanders”. 

While this is a general description, it keeps the matter relatively abstract. However, in a previous work (2014), the Five Eyes countries had already identified the need for a more common and clearer understanding of critical infrastructure. Every participating country was asked to list the sectors they consider critical as per the definition of this term, and for New Zealand, these are: 

  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Social Infrastructure (including Healthcare, Public Health and Government Facilities)
  • Water
  • Telecommunication (including Information Technology)

This choice was made because the NZ Government considers these sectors “key drivers of economic growth” and “an important contributor to improving living standards for all New Zealanders”. Establishing and maintaining resilience and developing a solid capability to deal with disruptions are hence the main goals associated with the protection of this critical infrastructure.

What happens when critical infrastructure fails?

No question, a failure of just one of the sectors mentioned above would likely lead to a significant impact on vast areas of our society. Not to mention the interdependencies and side-effects the failure of one critical sector would surely have on the others. 

Actually, among these critical infrastructure sectors, some appear even more critical than others – considering this rule of thumb: Whatever sits most upstream, and fails, will hit everything downstream consequently. Or in other words: If someone cuts off the power supply for all of New Zealand today, almost all Kiwi organisations and individuals will have a really bad time within a few days.

To prevent this and keep critical sectors at least basically operational, it must be made sure with priority that NZ’s power switch constantly remains ON.

What role do cyber threats play in this matter?

The protection of critical infrastructure in general, and the energy sector in particular, has been on the agenda of the NZ Government and industry interest groups for quite a while. Besides the traditional major natural and manmade physical impact scenarios, cyber-attacks have been added to the list of significant threats as well, and that is for good reasons:

  • Sophisticated cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure have been rising over recent years.
  • The Energy sector is critical for every country and hence naturally exposed to those attacks.
  • Critical infrastructure is significant enough to attract state-sponsored hacker groups, who usually have sufficient resources and skills to launch determined, sophisticated, long-term attack campaigns.
  • The Energy sector has particular exposure to 0-day exploits and supply chain attacks: It is a highly integrated and specialised ecosystem, with a fairly low number of members, that uses industry-specific (niche) solutions (incl. IoT) commonly deployed across the sector.
  • The level of maturity regarding information security is diverse and inconsistent across entities of the Energy sector, where there is no defined, mandatory standard, while at the same time overall resilience of the sector and services provided is only as reliable as its weakest member.

How to protect critical infrastructure against cyber-attacks? 

Although Energy providers are mostly commercial organisations, delivering services in a critical infrastructure sector can never be considered a normal, profit-focused business. Instead, it requires a highly risk-averse and strong security-focused attitude.

To facilitate a reasonable baseline of protection against cyber-risks, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), representing the NZ Government and the New Zealand Control Systems Security Information Exchange (CSSIE), representing the industry’s interests, have joined forces about a decade ago (2013), to define, release and maintain the Voluntary Cyber Security Standards for Control Systems Operators (VCSS-CSO).

This standard, which basically adopts best practice controls from the North American Electric Reliability Corporate (NERC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is considered the primary cyber security benchmark for critical infrastructure providers in New Zealand. 

The VCSS-CSO is overall well balanced, containing reasonable guidance and all relevant controls, commonly considered essential, critical, or general best practice, with the definition of some additional industry or target group specific requirements. It is structured into 11 critical infrastructure protection (CIP) areas (2019 release) within the summary of 61 requirements and numerous supplement sub-requirements. It is meant to serve as a voluntary compliance framework based on self-assessments.

What needs to be improved?

It is, of course, appreciated that there already exists a defined national standard that aligns with recognised international best practices. This is an essential prerequisite to ultimately achieving a consistent and consolidated level of security across multiple organisations in a critical infrastructure sector. It, however, lacks a vital governance component: It is not mandatory and hence cannot be effectively enforced at this stage. Instead, entities are left alone, and trust rather than control is the current mean of choice to assure a reliable security posture. 

Considering the importance of critical infrastructure in general and the energy sector in particular, this voluntary arrangement appears to be far from appropriate. Interestingly, for government agencies and district health boards, i.e. actors of the social (critical) infrastructure sector, security compliance is much stricter enforced with the All of Government (AoG) framework.

It dictates consistent and restrictive alignment with the prescriptive NZISM and associated comprehensive regular certification and accreditation practices. Given that the energy sector is sitting upstream of the social infrastructure, it is surprising that nothing comparable has been established and enforced so far. 

Meanwhile, other Five-Eyes countries are already a step ahead here, e.g. with NERC CIP being mandatory for US and Canadian electric power grid providers. Since the NERC standard already served as a blueprint, New Zealand would be well advised to consequently follow this example and make compliance with the VCSS-CSO mandatory. It would also do well by aligning associated processes and procedures to what is already established in comparable contexts within the AoG framework.

This will most likely also require rearranging and clarifying roles and responsibilities between involved important stakeholders, including NCSC and CSSIE, and industry-specific authorities and interest groups like the Electricity Authority to establish a reliable, overarching cyber security governance body for this matter.

Being a critical infrastructure provider implies more than running an average business and hence clearly demands advanced security diligence, particularly to maintain reasonable protection against cyber threats. The right “tools” have already been acquired and are ready for effective use. It is now about time to consequently force them into action.

Critical infrastructure providers must be obliged to establish a solid and consistent level of cyber security today, to preserve severe failures tomorrow. Start with properly cyber-securing the energy sector to ensure that the power switch remains ON, for everyone.

Related stories
Top stories
Story image
Tech job moves
Tech job moves - Adatree, Brother, Databricks, Nutanix & Rubrik
We round up all job appointments from May 20-26, 2022, in one place to keep you updated with the latest from across the tech industries.
Story image
Could New Zealanders initiate a cyber attack from within?
The threat landscape is significantly increasing worldwide, and the opportunities it presents are a growing concern in Aotearoa.
Story image
The path to bolstering supply chain security in New Zealand
A significant amount of today's business and leisure activity relies on IT supply chains. From complex international freight trades to local small business distribution channels, any supply chain that involves IT infrastructure serves as a crucial tool in our daily lives. 
Story image
Microsoft NZ and TupuToa to boost diversity in cybersecurity sector
Microsoft NZ has teamed up with TupuToa to co-develop a cyber security employment programme specifically aimed at creating more diversity in Aotearoa's cybersecurity sector.
Story image
Tech job moves - Forcepoint, Malwarebytes, SolarWinds & VMware
We round up all job appointments from May 13-20, 2022, in one place to keep you updated with the latest from across the tech industries.
Story image
Maintaining secure systems with expectations of flexible work
Most office workers feel they've proved they can work successfully from home, and as much as employers try, things aren't going back to the way they were anytime soon.
Story image
Employees on the frontline of cyber defense - report
In the first quarter of 2022, employees found themselves more than ever at the frontline of cyber defense, according to a new report from Kroll. 
Story image
Amazon Web Services / AWS
RedShield leverages AWS to scale cybersecurity services
"Working with AWS gives RedShield the ability to mitigate significant application layer DDoS attacks, helping leaders adopt best practices and security architectures."
Story image
Managed service provider
Barracuda MSP Day 2022 highlights MSP opportunities
Barracuda Networks has released a report showing global services-related MSP revenue is set to increase by more than a third in 2022 compared to 2021.
Story image
Identity and Access Management
The post-pandemic workforce requires secure IAM capabilities
HID Global discusses what identity and access management means for organisations in today's convoluted digital world.
Story image
What every CISO must answer to enable a best-in-class security operations program
It has been widely reported recently that South Australian government employees have been the victims of a cyberattack.
Story image
Check Point
Check Point and CCTV expert join forces to boost protection
The partnership will involve Check Point Quantum IoT Protect Nano Agent being embedded in Provision-ISR’s CCTV cameras for on-device runtime protection.
Story image
Remote Working
Successful digital transformation in the hybrid work era is about embracing shifting goalposts
As organisations embraced remote working, many discovered they lacked the infrastructure needed to support history’s first global load test of remote work capabilities.
Story image
Third-party automotive apps bear significant privacy risks
Mobile applications for connected cars provide various features to make life easier for motorists, but they can also be a source of risk.
Story image
More than 40% of banks worried about cloud security - report
Publicis Sapient's new report finds security and the lack of cloud skills and internal understanding of business benefits are big obstacles for banks moving to the cloud.
Story image
i-PRO releases smallest AI-based surveillance camera on the market
The new i-PRO mini network camera is now available, with a pocket-sized form factor and full AI analytics functionality.
Story image
Customer experience
Gartner recognises Okta for abilities in Access Management
Okta has announced it has been recognised as a Customers' Choice for the fourth time in a row in the Gartner Peer Insights "Voice of the Customer" report.
Story image
Fortinet introduces self-learning AI in latest offering
Fortinet is introducing self-learning AI capabilities in its new network detection and response offering, FortiNDR.
Story image
Cyber attacks
Devastating cyber attacks expected to hit energy sector
Energy executives anticipate life, property, and environment-compromising cyber attacks on the sector within the next two years.
Story image
Infosec unveils role-guided cybersecurity training roadmaps
Infosec Skills Roles maps hands-on training and certifications to the 12 most in-demand cybersecurity roles to maximise training efficiency.
Story image
Alarming surge in Conti Ransomware Group activity - report
A new report has identified a 7.6 per cent increase in the number of vulnerabilities tied to ransomware in Q1 2022.
Story image
Accenture - a collective security approach a driving factor for cyber resilience
With the approaching Davos World Economic Forum upon us, it is even more imperative to discuss the impact of cybersecurity on business operations leading into the future.
Story image
APAC organisations fail to disclose ransomware breaches
85% of organisations in APAC were breached by ransomware at least once in the past five years, but only 28% publicly disclosed the incident.
Story image
Asia Pacific plagued by sophisticated bad bots - report
The three most common bot attacks were account takeover, content or price scraping, and scalping to obtain limited-availability items.
Story image
CERT NZ releases first Cyber Security Insights for 2022
CERT NZ has released Quarter One: Cyber Security Insights 2022, which offers an overview of reports about cybersecurity incidents affecting New Zealanders.
Story image
Trojan cyber attacks hitting SMBs harder than ever - Kaspersky
In 2022 the number of Trojan-PSW detections increased by almost a quarter compared to the same period in 2021 to reach 4,003,323.
Story image
Vectra AI
Understanding the weight on security leader’s shoulders, and how to shift it
Millions of dollars of government funding and internal budgets are being funnelled into cybersecurity to build resilience against sophisticated threats, indicating how serious this issue has become.
Story image
ChildFund launches new campaign to protect children online
ChildFund says WEB Safe & Wise aims to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse online while also empowering them to become digitally savvy. 
Story image
WhatsApp and QR codes the next scam threat - report
KnowBe4 has warned it expects to see an increase in QR Codes and the WhatsApp chat platform being used for phishing and other scams. 
Story image
Cybersecurity prompts upgrade for 1.3 billion electricity meters
ABI Research finds Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and cybersecurity concerns are prompting the upgrade of 1.3 billion electricity meters by 2027.
Story image
Elevation of Privilege the top 2021 Microsoft vulnerability
BeyondTrust has released its 2022 Microsoft Vulnerabilities Report, finding that Elevation of Privilege is the top vulnerability category for the second consecutive year.
Story image
Sysdig unveils new Kubernetes troubleshooting and cloud innovations
Sysdig has introduced two new innovations that look to help bolster cloud services and simplify Kubernetes troubleshooting.
Story image
Silver Peak
The path to an adaptive, modern network
Managing and securing the network looks different than it did just two years ago—especially given that most of these networks are made up of multi-generations of infrastructure stitched together over time.
Story image
The ups and downs and runarounds of catching cybercriminals in NZ
We're becoming more and more aware of cybercrimes but how many criminals actually get caught? The New Zealand police explain why the answer is complicated.
Story image
Vishing attacks reach all time high - Agari and PhishLabs
"Hybrid vishing campaigns continue to generate stunning numbers, representing 26.1% of total share in volume so far in 2022."
Story image
APAC ranks third-highest region targeted by ransomware
Asia Pacific has ranked the third-highest region globally to be targeted by ransomware, according to cybersecurity firm Group-IB.
Story image
New Relic
New Relic launches vulnerability management platform
New Relic has introduced New Relic Vulnerability Management to help organisations find and address security risks faster and with greater precision.
Story image
Global cybersecurity insurance market worth $11.5b this year
Future Market Insights finds the cybersecurity insurance market is expected to reach USD$11.5 billion in 2022, growing to $61.2 billion in 10 years.
Threat actors are exploiting weaknesses in interconnected IT/OT ecosystems. Darktrace illuminates your entire business and takes targeted action to stop emerging attacks.
Link image
Story image
BYOD / Bring Your Own Device
How zero trust can lead the battle against ransomware
SecOps teams champion a zero trust strategy to support the fight against the escalating risk of cybercrime and help monitor threat actors across a network.
Story image
Let’s clear the cloud visibility haze with app awareness
Increasingly, organisations are heading for the cloud, initiating new born-in-the-cloud architectures and migrating existing applications via ‘lift and shift’ or refactoring.
Story image
Data Protection
Barracuda launches new capabilities for API Protection
"Every business needs this type of critical protection against API vulnerabilities and automated bot attacks," Barracuda says.
Story image
Comcast to use ThreatQuotient for cybersecurity operations
Comcast, the parent company of NBC Universal and SKY Group, has chosen ThreatQ Platform and ThreatQ Investigations to meet their cybersecurity needs.
Story image
Artificial Intelligence
Gartner reveals top three tech trends for banks this year
Gartner says generative artificial intelligence, autonomic systems and privacy-enhancing computation are gaining traction in banking and investment services.