x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Cyber attacks the 'clear, present danger' to UAE's most important companies

Security experts tells of threat from the DDoS attack and what the UAE is doing to combat the dangers of constantly shifting nature of cyber attacks.

DUBAI // Cyber attacks, such as the recent example that slowed the internet around the world, have been described by a security expert as a danger to the UAE's most important companies.

Last month's distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which is thought to be the biggest-ever of its kind, is a warning to key companies, says Tom Burton, the head of cyber security at BAE Systems Detica, a British technology consulting firm. Last November, he says, the prominent cyber-activist group Anonymous announced that it would attack the top 20 oil companies in the world, which includes Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc).

"How successful they would be, we don't know," he said, "but the fact remains that the threat is real, it is clear, it is present and it poses a danger to one of the UAE's most important companies."

Last summer, Adnoc said it had a team of 20 people examining how to bolster cyber security as the emirate seeks to increase pumping capacity from 2.8 million barrels per day (bpd) to 3.5 million bpd by 2018.

The DDoS attack last month came after a row between an email spam-fighting group, Spamhaus, and Cyberbunker, a web hosting service.

Spamhaus was attacked for more than a week after blocking servers owned by Cyberbunker, a Dutch company that says it will host anything apart from child pornography and terrorist material.

Non-profit Spamhaus has alleged that Cyberbunker conducted the cyber attacks in cooperation with criminals in Eastern Europe and Russia.

The attack was on a previously unheard-of scale, peaking at 300 gigabytes per second, compared with an average large-scale attack that would reach 50Gbps.

Retaliation attacks affected the wider internet and sparked investigations by five national cyber-police forces.

Mr Burton said that DDoS attacks are comparatively simplistic compared to previous attacks in the GCC, such as Stuxnet, Flame or Wiper.

"However, the trade-off of this simplicity is that they are potentially more numerous," he said.

"In effect, an individual can undertake a DDoS attack if they have enough botnet computers (internet-connected computers communicating with each other) under their control. From there, they can ensure that enough traffic is directed at an organisation to achieve the aim of reducing performance and, ultimately, forcing it to take the service down, even if temporarily."

According to Dr Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma), the UAE has been very proactive in defending its cyberspace from such attacks, which can be state-sponsored.

"The UAE has concentrated on more sophisticated threats as it feels that it has in place adequate defences for DDoS threats," he said. "The Government in Abu Dhabi has contracted a number of foreign companies to put in preventative measures to thwart attacks.

"Cyber threats and warfare are being taken very seriously by the UAE Government because it's the next wave of warfare but it is here now."

Mr Burton said that the challenge with cyber threats is that the landscape is constantly shifting, in part because of the ingenuity of the adversaries and in part because of advances in technology.

"We need to be ever-vigilant and continually test our defences to be able to withstand both the loud attacks, such as DDoS, and the more silent, covert espionage activity, which is equally damaging to our economies," he said.

"It is also a threat that cannot be countered by governments alone, in contrast to conventional threats; businesses are on the front line and need to make preparations themselves."

According to the internet security company FireEye Inc's 2012 Advanced Threat Report, malware activity has become so pervasive that organisations experience a malicious email file attachment or web link that evades defences as often as once every three minutes.

The director general of Abu Dhabi think-tank Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, Dr Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi, on Wednesday said that virtual warfare will become an essential aspect of military conflicts between states, adding that the nature of future warfare begins with science and ends with technology.

amustafa@thenational.ae