Protecting the NRC’s Cyber Frontier

By David McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

 

computersec1The email was flagged urgent and screamed in capital letters: YOUR IMMEDIATE ATTENTION REQUIRED! The message said a software update was needed to avoid major system disruption, and to click a link and enter a network password. The NRC employee who received the email thought the message looked suspicious. Instead of clicking on the link, she forwarded the message as an attachment to the NRC’s Computer Security Incident Response Team.

Within minutes, a CSIRT member was analyzing the email on a computer unconnected to the NRC network. He quickly determined the message was bogus, a “phishing” attempt to gain unauthorized access to the system. He instructed the employee to delete the message and block the sender to avoid receiving any further attempted intrusions from that Internet address.

Had the employee provided her username and password, she could have exposed the NRC’s computer network and its sensitive information to compromise and possible disruption. Personal information about NRC employees would have been at risk, as well as sensitive pre-decisional information about agency policies and licensees. While Safeguards and classified information about the security and status of nuclear plants is maintained on separate higher security systems, the information we process on the NRC corporate network must also be protected.

CSIRT, part of the NRC’s Computer Security Office, is a small group of experts, all highly trained in cyber defense. Their mission is to detect and thwart attacks on the NRC’s computer networks and prevent “spills” of sensitive information. Such attacks can come through phishing attempts, such as the fictional incident described above, malware implanted in website advertisements or viruses and malware on portable data devices.

The team routinely works with other federal agencies, including the Homeland Security Department’s U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team (US-CERT) to stay up to date on the latest vulnerabilities. They even practice “white hat” hacking to test the NRC’s systems.

As a response team, CSIRT investigates suspicious emails that have already passed through the NRC’s extensive SPAM filters and Internet firewall, robust cyber security defenses mounted by the Office of Information Systems.

About 10 million emails are directed to NRC.gov addresses each month, and nearly 90 percent of them are blocked by the agency’s network security technologies as spam or for carrying viruses or suspicious attachments, says Mike Lidell, IT Specialist in the OIS Security Operations and Systems Engineering Branch. The OIS team administers the NRC’s firewalls, intrusion detection systems and spam filters.

computersec1While the percentage of blocked emails seems high, Lidell says it’s pretty much “par for the course” for any large organization or government agency. Emails that get through the initial line of defense are scanned again by the internal servers and a third time by the end-user’s individual computer. Internet data returned from the Web is scanned by NRC servers and individual workstations as well to guard against “drive-by downloads” of malicious software.

As Lidell points out, the “defense in depth” is necessary because the attacks are always evolving and changing. Thorne Graham, CSIRT’s team leader, praises a fourth line of defense against email attacks on the agency’s network: The NRC’s 4,000 employees. All NRC employees take annual online computer security training.

“Our best defense is the individual employee,” Graham says. “Security is everyone’s business.”

 

National Cyber Security Awareness Month – It’s For Everyone

Joan Rolf
Senior Cyber Security Coordinator
 

cybersecgraphicOctober is National Cyber Security Awareness Month and – before we head into November – it’s now a good time to remember the importance of cyber security. Cyber crime threatens our work, personal life, identity and privacy. Here at the NRC, we’re committed to protecting our internal digital assets and information, as well as ensuring that our regulated facilities’ critical digital systems of are well protected. This vigilance supports the NRC’s security and safety missions.

All NRC employees are required to complete annual training on computer security. Some of the concepts we teach our employees are useful for everyone:

  • Set strong passwords and don’t share them with anyone.
  • Keep your operating system, browser, and other critical software optimized and secure by installing updates.
  • Maintain an open dialogue with your family, friends, and community about Internet safety.
  • Limit the amount of personal information you post online, and use privacy settings.
  • Be cautious about what you receive or read online; if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The NRC ensures operating power reactor licensees and applicants seeking new licenses implement appropriate protections against cyber threats. Since 2009, the NRC has required each power plant to have a cyber security program in place to protect their computer and communications systems.

Over the last two years we have conducted more than 35 cyber security inspections and actively engaged licensees to ensure all identified issues are addressed. In the recently released “Strategic Plan: Fiscal Years 2014-2018,” we highlight the importance of cyber security guidance for nuclear power reactors, fuel cycle and spent fuel storage facilities, non-power reactors, decommissioned nuclear facilities, and materials licensees.

The NRC is developing a final rule, 10 CFR part 73.77, “Cyber Security Event Notifications,” which, if approved, will require timely notification of cyber security events. This rule is intended to improve the NRC’s ability to respond to cyber security-related plant events, enable the NRC to more effectively evaluate potential threats, and aid the NRC’s overall situational awareness.

reverse_cybersecgraphicIn our Cyber Security Directorate, part of the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response, we continue to work with federal partners to protect the United States’ critical infrastructure. The NRC joins the Department of Homeland Security in its interagency and public-private efforts under the Sector Specific Agency Nuclear Sector. And we join with other government regulators on the newly-established Cyber Security Forum for Independent and Executive Branch Regulators, led by Chairman Allison Macfarlane. These partnerships strengthen our mutual knowledge base and provide agencies with an opportunity to share methods and approaches to enhance overall cyber security protection.

During Cyber Security Awareness Month, federal agencies are holding a variety of events to promote the conversation – among employees and the public – on this important topic. One of the most important things for our employees and our stakeholders to realize is the individual computer user is the first line of defense in cyber security.