This month’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing facility, which is the world’s largest and accounts for five percent of global oil supplies, resulted in one of the largest oil price increases  ever recorded. 

More importantly, it demonstrated that the world’s energy infrastructure is vulnerable, can be severely disrupted and is an increasingly likely target for bad actors.

Recent Attacks Reinforce the Threat

Other recent examples – of both cyber and physical attacks – reinforce the threat.

In 2008, an alleged cyber attack blew up an oil pipeline in Turkey, shutting it down for three weeks.  In 2015, a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS)  attack brought down a section of the Ukrainian power grid — for just six hours, but substations on the grid had to be operated manually for months.  Another attack in the Ukraine occurred just a year later, reportedly carried out by Russian actors. And, the Abqaiq facility itself had been the target of a thwarted Al Qaeda suicide bomber attack in 2006.

Threats to Physical Security

A 2018 report by the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism outlined the most intuitive physical threats to critical infrastructure, including the energy sector, involved the use of explosives or incendiary devices, rockets, MANPADs, grenades and tools to induce arson.

That same report noted that the energy sector has witnessed sustained terrorist activity through attacks perpetrated by Al Qaeda and its affiliates on oil companies’ facilities and personnel in Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Increasing Intensity of DDoS Attacks

In addition to physical threats, it is estimated that by 2020, at least five countries will see foreign hackers take all or part of their national energy grid offline through Permanent Denial of Service (PDoS) attacks. And, DDoS attacks like those in the Ukraine are becoming increasingly severe.  Studies show that the number of total DDoS attacks decreased by 18 percent year-over-year in Q2 2017.  At the same time, there was a 19 percent increase in the average number of attacks per target.

U.S. is the “Holy Grail”

Disruption of the U.S. power grid is considered the “holy grail,” and experts predict that the energy industry could be an early battleground, not only the power sector, but the nation’s pipelines and the entirety of the supply chain. 

In fact, last year the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) publicly accused the Russians of cyberattacks on small utility companies in the United States.  In a joint Technical Alert  (TA), the agencies said Russian hackers conducted spear phishing attacks and staged malware in the control rooms with the goal of gathering data to create detrimental harm to critical U.S. infrastructure.

900 “Vulnerabilities” Found in the U.S. Energy Systems

This specific incident aside, DHS’s Industrial Control System Computer Emergency Response Team found nearly 900 cyber security vulnerabilities in U.S. energy control systems between 2011 and 2015, more than any other industry.  It’s not surprising that the international oil sector alone increased investments on cyber defenses by $1.9 billion in 2018. 

Investment in Physical Security Will Reach $920 billion

With any disruption to the global or national energy supply having serious implications for virtually all industries, especially critical ones like healthcare, transportation, security, and financial services, one report projects that the global critical infrastructure protection market will be worth $118 billion by 2028.

Physical security is expected to account for the highest proportion of spending, and cumulatively will account for $920 billion in investment.

Artificial Intelligence: A Security “Pathway” for the Future

Experts suggest that these investments should include next generation technologies for both physical and cyber security purposes. As one expert put it: “Automation, including via artificial intelligence, is an emerging and future cyber security pathway.”

In addition to the role that automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning can bring to identifying and predicting a physical or cyber attack, research shows that it can also help manage the rising costs associated with it. A study found that only 38 percent of companies are investing in this technology – even though after initial investments, it could represent net saving of $2.09 million.

Learn more about AI-driven Radiance and how it can help identify and predict physical and cyber threats to the energy infrastructure.