x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

New defences as threats swarm in cyberspace

Cyber security is not only about building a firewall to keep threats out, but having the skills to put out the fires that do get through.

In the Negev desert, Israeli scientists have designed an array of centrifuges modelled on Iran's Natanz nuclear enrichment facility. Although there have been no claims of responsibility, evidence is mounting that the site was used to test the Stuxnet computer worm that attacked Iran's nuclear installations at Natanz and the Bushehr nuclear reactor last year.

In the past few days, the hacker activist group Anonymous has claimed that it has the programme for a similar Stuxnet worm, described by some as the most sophisticated cyber weapon ever used. If the worm was successfully deployed against Bushehr, Russian diplomats have said, the result would be a "new Chernobyl".

Security in the digital age has taken on an entirely new dimension. A joint Russian-American report on cyber conflict released by the EastWest Institute earlier this month has described the complex challenges of this new arena and the new weapons that are at hand.

"Nearly all critical civilian infrastructure is online, from the electricity grids that support hospitals to the systems that guide passenger planes through the air," wrote Karl Rauscher, the institute's chief technology officer.

The report focused on international standards that can minimise the fallout from cyber conflicts whether the combatants are state or non-state actors. But closer to home, security consultants have warned that the UAE is under constant attack by cyber criminals and there are security gaps that hackers can exploit.

These warnings have to be taken with a grain of salt - it's in the interest of consultants to sell security tools - and a distinction should be drawn between cyber crime and cyber war, of which Stuxnet appeared to be an opening salvo. But there is every reason for a sober assessment of risks as well as the available arsenal.

Acknowledging the vulnerability is the first step towards filling the chinks in the armour. The UAE is bringing in top international expertise, but perhaps more importantly training an indigenous battalion of cyber-security professionals at Zayed University.

Stuxnet has been at the core of riveting geopolitical drama, but the next threat will come from lines of code that haven't yet been written, exploiting vulnerabilities that haven't been recognised. Cyber security is not only about building a firewall to keep threats out, but having the skills to put out the fires that do get through.