The continued challenge of keeping assets secure

10 September 2014

More money is being spent on protecting the region’s industrial plants

Before the turn of the decade, no one in the Middle East gave much thought to the supervisory control and data acquisition (scada) systems that control almost every single process plant, oil field and factory in the region or the security that surrounded them.

Then in 2010, news started to leak out that computer malware, called Stuxnet, had attacked the scada systems of Iran’s nuclear facilities, instructing process machinery to operate outside its capabilities and causing extensive damage.

This was an alarm call to the Middle East’s national oil companies (NOCs) and heavy industrial players. As a result, respective scada systems were immediately isolated and greater password protection and firewall systems installed.

“We definitely witnessed a seismic change in attitudes after Stuxnet,” says Hedwig Maes, president of Europe, Middle East and Africa for the US’ Rockwell Automation. “Securing assets from attack became a very real priority for the Middle East, and more and more people wanted to speak to us to learn how to best deal with this.”

Rockwell is one of several companies that provide scada systems, which are essentially small computers that send instructions to the machinery operating in a respective oil field, petrochemicals plant or aluminium smelter.

Today, the security issues facing this region’s oil and gas and industrial industries do not just involve a computer hacker trying to breach a firewall. It is far easier for a serving employee to bring in malware, either deliberately or accidently, than it is for someone to attack externally.

What has been a real game-changer in recent years is the enormous growth in the use of smart devices, such as phones and tablets, and the ease at which such technology can be transported into a facility. Research carried out in the US’ manufacturing sector discovered that more than 60 per cent of companies allow employees to bring such devices to work. There has been no similar study of the Middle East, but it is likely to be a similar figure.

All companies providing automation systems now offer a fully integrated solution that offers layers of protection from attack, as well as constant monitoring to ensure each asset is fully secure. Rockwell Automation also hosted a conference at Dammam in Saudi Arabia in early September, which included offering advice and training to customers and students on how to keep assets secure.

This focus on increased security is reflected in the increased activity of all automation companies in the Middle East. Rockwell estimates that 10-15 per cent of its global business will come from the region in the next five years, the vast majority of this being in oil, gas and heavy industries.

MEED reported in 2012 that the region’s national oil companies spent an estimated $10m a year on cyber security, but some experts believe this figure has already doubled and could grow even more quickly in the future. However, when compared with the hundreds of millions of dollars a shutdown of an oil field or petrochemicals plant could cost, the figure is a tiny percentage of operational costs.

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