Kuwait is becoming increasingly concerned over the threat posed by cyber attacks against its strategic oil and gas industry, along with other sectors of the economy, with greater training of staff and improved technology seen as vital front-line defences to ensure cyber security.
Kuwait’s Minister of Oil warned on May 24 that the country’s future economic health was dependent on a high level of cyber security, with technological diligence necessary to protect the industrial, business, and state sectors.
“Today’s economic prosperity depends on industrial cyber security,” Ali Saleh Al-Omair said during a keynote address to a conference in Kuwait on cyber security. “The industrial sector has faced many technical challenges over hacking and sabotage, so an industrial control system (ICS) becomes necessary to guarantee their ability to face any emergency.”
Halting global supplies
Cyber threats are on the rise worldwide. A study by the SANS Institute, a UK-based research group on information security, said the number of organisations with identified or suspected security breaches had increased to nearly 40% in 2014 from 28% a year ago, with only 9% confident their systems have not been penetrated.
A report released in March by technology firm Cisco said businesses in the Middle East were increasingly becoming the target of cyber attacks, with energy firms particularly at risk. Cyber-criminals are increasingly attacking internet infrastructure rather than individual computers or devices, with the target of breaching and stealing data.
A cyber attack against Saudi Aramco in 2012 not only wiped data from a larger number of desktop computers at the state-run and world’s largest oil producer, it was later revealed by Saudi Arabia that the attack had been aimed at stopping crude oil and gas supplies. The same cyber virus, known as ‘Shamoon’, was also used to attack systems at Qatar’s RasGas, industry executives and internet security experts said.
Cyber threat to oil production
Kuwait, along with other major oil and gas producers in the Gulf region, is moving to increase the ICT component in managing its hydrocarbons industry. New technologies could help to maximise production from maturing oil fields, according to Hatem Nasr, a consultant for the state-run Kuwait Oil Company.
“We either have to go digital or perish,” Nasr told a conference in Abu Dhabi in June, adding that without real-time data, the industry could not respond to problems or make accurate projections for the future.
While going digital is the way forward, an increased ICT profile may also expose the industry to more complex security breaches unless new solutions are developed and maintained. This creates opportunities for Kuwaiti and international security firms to expand into the marketplace and offer solutions to local businesses and government agencies.
Michael Porier, managing director of international finance and technology consulting firm Protiviti, said companies and agencies need to put in place comprehensive supervisory control, with data acquisition systems that are protected by a high level of security.
Porier said organisations need to understand that compliance is not equivalent to adequate security. “It is vital to put in place multiple security counter-measures to ensure the information asset is truly protected,” he told a seminar.
Call for national cyber security strategy
Such calls are echoed elsewhere in Kuwait. Majida Al-Naqeeb, a deputy general director at the Central Agency for Information Technology, said in May that companies need to boost their defence systems to address loopholes and weaknesses to ward off hackers who are able to stop basic online operations, causing "disasters on local and international levels."
The agency has suggested a national strategy aimed at protecting IT systems and users of such systems, noting the importance of training staff at government and private sector organisations in all aspects of safeguarding data.
The domestic skills base is an area of weakness. Kuwait's rankings in a survey by the World Economic Forum (WEF) suggest that while the use of ICT in the economy is rising, more needs to be done to increase awareness of the technology’s potential, a niche area of training that private service providers would be well placed to move into.