Fresh warnings about the vulnerability of national infrastructure to cyber attacks show the need for securing and monitoring associated control systems connected to the internet.
The commander of Britain’s Joint Forces Command has warned that UK traffic control systems and other critical infrastructure could be targeted by cyber adversaries – but industry experts say this is nothing new and something organisations should be preparing for.
According to Christopher Deverell, these systems could be targeted by countries such as Russia. “There are many potential angles of attack on our systems,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.
Other vulnerable control systems that are connected to the internet are used in power stations, for air traffic control and for rail and other transport systems.
Sean Newman, director at Corero Network Security, said there is nothing new in the claims. “The potential for such attacks has been growing for several years as more systems become connected,” he said.
“There are many good reasons for connecting operational and information networks, including efficiency and effectiveness. However, this opens up operational controls to potential attacks from across the internet, where previously they were completely isolated and only accessible from the inside.”
Potential attacks must be identified
According to Newman, the question is no longer whether such attacks are theoretically possible, but who is bold enough to carry out such assaults and risk the likely repercussions.
“It is reasonable to assume that it’s more a matter of time than if, so the operators of such systems need to be fully cognisant of the potential risks and deploy all reasonable protection to minimise it,” he said.
“This includes preventing remote access to such systems, as well as real-time defences against DDoS [distributed denial of service] attacks which could disrupt their operation or prevent legitimate access for operation and control purposes.”
Andrea Carcano, chief product officer at Nozomi Networks, said the reality is that the UK’s infrastructure, and those in every developed country around the world, is being continually poked and probed, not just by nation states but by criminals, hacktivists and even curious hobbyists.
“We have seen the damage that can be done from hacks in the Ukraine, where attackers were able to compromise systems and turn the lights out,” he said. “With each incursion, both successful and those that are thwarted, the attackers will learn what has worked, what hasn’t, and what can be improved for the next attempt.
“The challenge for those charged with protecting our critical infrastructure is visibility, as you can’t protect what you don’t know exists.”