Results from the Poll


I started last Friday a small poll to get the opinion of the security community on assigning a security level to a specific type of production process. I selected a refinery, a chemical plant (as example a Poly Propylene plant), a bulk power generation plant and a wind mill farm for power generation.

Apart from people voting for a specific security level, there was also some discussion if the question I asked was correct. And yes it was a tricky question, IEC 62443 never intended to use security levels this way. But never the less IEC 62443.3.3 did create kind of threat actor profile by using the threat actor’s intention, capabilities, resources, and motivation as the differentiator between the security levels. So one could also read the question (and this was my intention) as against what threat actor profile do we need to protect the plant. First let me show the results:

Poll results (8/13/2021 – 8/19/2021)

I leave the security level assignments for what they are, good or bad assignment wouldn’t be an appropriate judgement because the criticality of the production process hasn’t been defined. But we can see in the top two diagrams that there is a certain tendency toward the higher security levels for the selected production processes.

I was also curious if there would be a difference in score between different disciplines, so I divided the votes (452 in total) over 4 groups. The votes from asset owners (135 votes), votes from subject matter experts working for OT service providers (220 votes), votes from subject matter experts working for IT service providers (79 votes), and a number of votes (total 18) of non-related disciplines. Seems like the OT service providers and the asset owners reasonably align in their judgement, and the IT providers and others like the SL 4 score.


Then about the discussion, is the question asked yes or no a valid question? From an IEC 62443 perspective probably not, but if I take the definition of security levels and their relationship with the threat actor profile literally, why not.

But ok, IEC 62443 likes us to define the system in security zones and conduits. Than determine the risk and assign a security level. However there is no transformation matrix defined in the standard. The only transformation matrix I am aware of is in the ISA course material. In the course material a qualitative risk assessment is provided, and the results of this assessment are converted into a security level. But formally there is no defined transformation matrix between risk and security level. Additionally qualitative risk assessments have no link with the quantitative results of the plant’s risk analysis based on the results of their Hazop / LOPA analysis. (See my blog on this topic) A plant’s risk matrix looks like this:

Example risk matrix

In the diagram a plant expresses which risk are acceptable (A), Tolerable Acceptable (TA), Tolerable Non-Acceptable (TNA), or Not acceptable (NA). Horizontally we have the likelihood, generally expressed in events per annum, and vertically we have the consequence severity scores / LOPA target factors. Above example uses 4 risk levels, but also 5 risk levels are used, in a 5 x 5 matrix. But different plants have different matrices and not always 5 x 5, e.g. 7×5 is also quite common aligning with the 7 likelihood categories used in LOPA.

In IEC 62443.3.2 the standard links to loss scenarios such as provided by the HAZOP / LOPA documentation. If we express risk as loss based risk, an important demand of asset owners, the transformation matrix converting risk to SL should align somehow with the risk matrix. But this is a challenge, every plant has its own transformation matrix because a risk seen as Non-Acceptable should not be assigned a security level as SL 2 if the consequence of the process scenario could even be single or multiple fatalities. So we would have many different transformation matrices.

Like I mentioned the ISA course material avoids this issue by working with a qualitative risk assessment and producing outcome that is not aligned with the plant risk matrix. However qualitative risk assessments are a subject matter expert’s opinion, and therefore often very subjective. Especially if workshops don’t have enough participants, and the workshop leader tries to get consensus on the scores. IEC 62443.3.2 denies the existence of quantitative methods, but these methods do exist and are used. I intend to show you how this works in my next blog, but it takes some time to create.


There is no relationship between my opinions and references to publications in this blog and the views of my employer in whatever capacity. This blog is written based on my personal opinion and knowledge build up over 43 years of work in this industry. Approximately half of the time working in engineering these automation systems, and half of the time implementing their networks and securing them, and conducting cyber security risk assessments for process installations since 2012.


Author: Sinclair Koelemij

OTcybersecurity web site

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