Cyber assault on industrial or energy platform has potential to cause significant real-world damage.
Oil, gas and industrial platforms across the Middle East are vulnerable to potentially disastrous cyber attacks, according to a security expert from defence giant Lockheed Martin.
Andrew Wadsworth, head of Lockheed Martin’s Process Control Security and a former geologist with over 30 years experience in the oil and gas industry, said that unlike traditional hacking attacks, a cyber assault on an industrial or energy platform has the potential to cause significant real-world damage.
“The big difference between securing an industrial control system versus information security is that if an industrial control system goes wrong, it has the potential to create an environmental impact, as well,” he said.
“Real world pipelines, compressors, turbines, oil wells, power plants. You have to have a real appreciation of the process that is being controlled in order to understand what the impacts are if it goes wrong.”
The issue of energy sector cyber security was most recently highlighted in August 2014, when over 300 oil and energy companies in Norway were subject to a massive, coordinated cyber assault.
In another incident in 2012, a virus hit 30,000 computers belonging to the world’s largest oil company, Saudi Aramco, which replaced important files with images of burning American flags and deleted vast amounts of data. It took almost two weeks for technicians to fully repair the system and caused damages of about $15 million.
Wadsworth noted that cyber attacks on energy and industrial platforms come in a variety of types, ranging from relatively benign viruses to dangerous manipulations of control systems, and from a range of sources, ranging from insider attacks by disgruntled former employees to sophisticated, state-backed professional hackers.
“There are examples in which viruses have been introduced where the effect and the intent were not to cause damage,” he said. “But you also need to protect against malicious intent, either through someone gaining access directly or through a targeted virus clearly crafted with a specific purpose in mind, to cause damage.”
As an example, Wadsworth noted that in late 2014 cyber attackers managed to tamper with control mechanisms at a German steel plant, preventing staff members from fully shutting down an industrial-scale furnace, resulting in significant damage.
In another incident in August 2008, a Turkish pipeline caught fire after, US officials said, cyber attackers remotely shut down alarm mechanisms and increased the pressure of crude oil flowing through.
Lockheed Martin is currently working with the UAE authorities from the Centre for Innovations and Security Solutions (CISS) in Masdar City to improve cyber security at oil and industrial facilities in the country.
“I would say that the UAE, and indeed the region, is probably more aware of the issues and prepared to put money into it than a lot of other countries,” Wadsworth said. “Is there more interest and awareness? Yes, compared to many parts of the world we work in. That alone gives me hope that people are aware of it and want to do something about it.”
Wadsworth warned that the GCC will likely be subject to cyber threats to its oil, gas and industrial facilities in the foreseeable future.“There is such a high dependency on the oil and gas industry here, which just makes it a big juicy target,” he said.
“If you were to shut down some production in the UK, it will have an impact, but it wouldn’t be devastating from an economic point of view, whereas if you could shut down ADGAS or ADCO in the UAE, that’s a huge part of your country’s revenue. That’s a key difference between this region and most others.”