More than elsewhere, the energy sector in the Middle East is vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Although governments and companies have raised concern, the awareness in the region for cyber threats is insufficient in relation to the technology developments and the level of impact a cyber-attack could have on an average Middle Eastern utility. Governments need start to develop coherent cyber security strategies and plans, supported by standards and regulations across the major infrastructure sectors, according to DNV KEMA.
"As cyber security threats are not restricted to one single group but can come from different corners, it is time that we all open our eyes and take appropriate actions to protect our countries and guarantee a safe and sustainable energy provision," said Mohammed Atif, managing director of DNV KEMA, Middle East.
Investments in cyber defense in the Middle Eastern energy sector have been planned but, contrary to Europe and the United States, there is no cyber security strategy implemented yet. At the same time, an attack on crucial energy expert infrastructure and/or key transiting routes would not just have a local, but also global impact.
The incidence of cyber-attacks in the Middle East Region is growing. Until recently, most of the attacks focused on computers and websites, front doors to governments and energy companies. Nowadays, as the viruses become increasingly sophisticated, the physical assets such as power stations and power grids are also under threat. Last year, Saudi Aramco and RasGas reported that viruses appeared on office computers, rather than on systems controlling hydrocarbon production. According to its government, in Iran, computers at several nuclear power stations were infected with viruses, while also computers of its national oil company were under threat.
"It is a positive development that the Gulf Cooperation Council has placed cyber defense as one of their priority areas for development," said Atif. "It is also positive that a number of member states have planned investments to protect their energy infrastructure. However, the composition and implementation of well-defined cyber protection plans are lagging behind compared with other regions. This is a situation to really worry about. A cyber-attack on crucial energy supplies and transiting routes in this region would impact the entire world."
Information on common cyber defense systems like SCADA, Stuxnet and ISPs is more and more becoming publicly available both in and outside the region. In addition - contrary to the situation of only a couple of years ago - industrial control systems are all interconnected with corporate IT networks and the internet, while at the same time the interconnectivity of energy assets such as power grids, is strongly increasing. These developments, in combination with insufficient awareness and the absence of a cyber-defense plan, make the energy sector in the Middle East vulnerable, more than elsewhere.
"Sharing responsibility between governments and companies in vital sectors is a first, necessary step in securing safe and reliable cyber networks," Atif said. "As cyber security threats are not restricted to one single group, but can come from different corners e.g. governments, activists and hackers, criminal organizations, terrorist organizations and even from within, it is time that we all open our eyes and take appropriate actions to protect our countries and guarantee a safe and sustainable energy provision."