‘100% increase in cyber attacks will overwhelm critical infrastructure’

The UK’s critical infrastructure faces an increase in cyber attacks of up to 100% over the next two years at the same time as it faces a critical shortage of security analysts, cyber security expert Huntsman Security has warned.

With critical infrastructure systems increasingly connected to the internet and customers’ homes, the opportunity to compromise them has also grown; with consequences ranging from critical services being held for ransom, to service outages, economic chaos and even disruption, injury or death to citizens.

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This year alone has seen high-profile attacks on power plants in the Ukraine and USA, and significant threats to UK and European transport infrastructure. The risk for critical infrastructure businesses is compounded by the upcoming NIS Directive – as companies that fail to meet security standards will face fines in the tens of millions of pounds.

“With the ISACA predicting a global shortage of two million cyber security jobs by 2019, there simply aren’t enough security analysts in the UK, or even the world, to cope with the growing threat that critical infrastructure faces,” said Peter Woollacott, CEO of Huntsman Security.

“National agencies are already reporting a significant increase in reported attacks, let alone those that pass undetected. As more elements of services move online, so there are many more opportunities for attackers of any size or capability to try their luck. As a result, our critical infrastructure faces a blizzard of attacks of varying sophistication – any one of which could be as damaging as WanaCry or Stuxnet. Even a simple DDoS attack has brought services such as Sweden’s trains to their knees recently. There’s no way to block all of these potential attacks at the walls of an organisation, and security analysts will soon be overwhelmed by the sheer volume they face. If organisations can’t address these challenges, the danger to the public, and the harm to the organisation itself, will be unacceptable.”

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Attacks on national infrastructure have been increasing steadily. In the US, reported cyber incidents against critical infrastructure increased by 49% between 2012 and 2015 – with a potentially larger number of unreported or unnoticed incidents yet to be discovered.

In the UK, the introduction of the NIS Directive in May 2018 will place additional pressure on critical infrastructure organisations. Under NIS, companies could face fines of up to 4% of turnover or £20 million, whichever is greater, if they can’t prove they have taken sufficient steps to “prevent and minimise” the impact of security incidents. To date energy, transport, health, drinking water supply and distribution and digital infrastructure have been proposed as the industries NIS covers.

Regardless of industry, the greatest challenge to organisations will be the volume and diversity of potential and actual attacks they face. In this environment, it will be critical to be able to identify, triage and respond to potential threats before they have an opportunity to cause damage. Ideally these tasks should be automated, so that security teams only need to take action on those attacks which present the highest risk, instead of being distracted by false alarms.

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“The fact that NIS is making organisations think about these dangers is important, but these thoughts have to be matched with the right action,” continued Woollacott. “When connections were entirely physical, it was relatively simple to prevent and stop attacks – in the online world, this is nowhere near enough. Without the ability to automatically triage potential threats and take the appropriate action – whether that’s simply logging the incident, alerting security teams, or quarantining the danger – organisations will find themselves overwhelmed and the odds of being victim to a major attack with serious consequences will increase accordingly. The internet as a means of communication is here to stay, meaning organisations will ultimately be judged by how they react to it. By accepting that they can’t stop every attack at the walls, critical infrastructure organisations are safeguarding not only themselves, but the UK as a whole.”

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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