The region’s oil and gas sector must focus on cyber security as increased integration and collaboration with partners to achieve efficiencies in planning, supply chain and operations increases their exposure to various security risks.

”Cyber security is just as important as process safety [particularly] for the oil and gas sector,” says Morgan Eldred, a research director at the US research and consultancy Gartner.

Online threats could be just as significant as a fire risk, according to Eldred. “A malicious software (malware) could easily change the speed of a centrifuge system, which could lead to disastrous consequences.”

A major cyber attack on oil producer Saudi Aramco in 2012, while it did not affect the oil firm’s production levels, disabled 30,000 work stations within hours.

While little information has been reported about the consequences of the 2012 attack, Chris Kubecka, former security adviser at the oil firm, recently told CNN that the oil firm’s business descended into turmoil following the attack.

“Managing suppliers, shipping, contracts with government and business… all of that was forced to happen on paper. Corporate email was gone. Office phones were dead. Employees wrote reports on typewriters… Lengthy, lucrative deals needing signatures were faxed one page at a time,” Kubecka said. ”The company temporarily stopped selling oil to domestic gas tank trucks. After 17 days, the corporation relented and started giving oil away for free to keep it flowing within Saudi Arabia.”

It took five months, said Kubecka, for a new and secure network to be put in place, and along with it a more expanded cybersecurity team.

Strengthening cyber security measures should accompany what Gartner recommends as large-scale digital transformation for the region’s oil and gas sector in order to achieve greater efficiencies especially in the new oil price era. “Your revenues are down 70 per cent, but what if I say large-scale digital transformation programmes can lead to billion dollars-worth of business cases?” asks Eldred at a forum dedicated to upstream oil and gas at the ongoing Gartner Symposium ITxpo in Dubai.

These benefits, argues Eldred, can accrue from increase in productivity; reduced capital expenditure by decreasing drilling well time using engineering modelling, cognitive computing and advanced analytics; reduction in unplanned shut downs through better production and asset performance modelling; and enhanced oil recovery.