A Brief Overview of the Cyber-Threat to Critical Energy Infrastructures - İrem Ayça Aykın



The number and severity of the cyber-attacks on critical energy infrastructures are discernibly increasing. As oil and gas becoming more dependent on information technology systems, they are becoming more and more vulnerable. The critical energy infrastructures have always been the target of physical attacks, which are easier to mitigate. On the other hand, cyber-attacks perceived as a new type of threat for the companies providing electric power, gas lines, and water systems, and they are harder to prevent. The growing dependency on information technology systems has enabled a new type of cyber attack, which is a cyber-enabled physical attack. Up to a point, cyber-attacks have remained in the digital world, but as technology improved, its capacity has increased as well. The means of the attack remained virtual, and its impact found a physical form.


The most significant cyber attack against a critical energy infrastructure was reported in 2009: the Stuxnet, a cyber worm, deployment against the Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities at Natanz. The malware was developed by the US and Israel and was meant to damage the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility. It had a unique code, called “zero-day” and 4 of them were found in the within the malware. It was designed to exploit the vulnerabilities in the data acquisition system (SCADA) and its control mechanism. After completing its duty, the malware was right after infected to the network in 2010.


These recent acts raised concerns about the cyber threat that Is expected to increase in the future as a new weapon of choice. The damage of these attacks is generally economical and social, and in the future, the severity of damages is expected to increase. Power networks and gas and oil sectors have been classified as the most critical infrastructures.


Electric power grid disruption can lead to widespread blackouts and shutdowns. The 2006 European blackout was started in Germany but spread to millions of households in France, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Eastern Europe. This blackout did not only cost money but also emphasized how strong is the interdependency of the European power system and how successful the cyber-attack was.


The oil and gas sectors have the highest rates of service attacks. One-third of the attacks have classified as denial-of-service attacks (DDOS), which occur when networks of infected computers are used to attack the target network with fake requests. DDOS has an assertive effect on the oil and gas sector due to its possibility to cause a serious impact on operations and critical breakdown of them.


The cyber-threat remained a central concern of the energy infrastructures, especially information technology systems became more integrated with the modern power system. The risk area has expanded; more and more systems became connected to the Internet. For example, SCADA, which is used to gather data and control critical infrastructure and enable engineers to control system components such as pumps. This system was initially planned to be closed with few security features, and now it is connected to the Internet and interconnected to other systems as well.


The threat to critical energy infrastructures is growing as the interconnectedness of energy system operations, and dependency on information technology systems are increasing. Although the cyber-enabled physical attacks are not associated as a security risk, it is a threat to the economy and society. And the appearance of the danger is susceptible to change, which makes it harder to mitigate it.


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