HOUSTON— Bomb attacks typically grab news headlines. But there are almost invisible activities occurring every day that could create a more widespread and devastating calamity — cyber intrusions into government and corporate information and control systems that could cripple vital services and bring normal commerce to a halt.
When Hurricane Sandy struck the New York City area in 2012, thousands of people were stranded without vital services like electricity and transportation as repair crews struggled to get systems back up and running. Daily malicious hackers threaten a similar disaster as they probe the computers that control those systems.
Concern over such threats as well as criminal intrusions brought representatives from government and the private sector together at the Chertoff Group’s cyber security conference, "What's Next: Protecting Our Critical Energy Infrastructure from Cyber Threats."
A particular concern here in Houston is the threat to energy systems.
“We have found malicious code, malware, on energy systems; whether that was there to steal information or was reconnaissance for attacks is more a matter of speculation," said former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, executive chairman of the sponsoring organization.
"Saudia Aramco was attacked," he added. "That is an energy company. And while it did not succeed in knocking them offline, it certainly indicated that energy companies are a target for this.”
Chertoff said there will likely be more threats to energy industry control systems by terrorists and some hostile foreign governments.
Stuart McClure, CEO of Cylance, said his company’s software protects clients from most threats, although Cylance itself is often a target of sophisticated intrusions.
“The only ones who can do that are very large nation states with big budgets, a lot of people, a lot of eyeballs that take a look at what we have done and try to bypass it,” he said.
Experts say technology offers only part of the solution and that constant vigilance is needed to maintain cyber security.
Companies provide security training to warn against such common breaches as plugging an unverified USB thumb drive into a networked computer.
The CEO of cyber-security firm SS8, Inc., Faizel Lakhani said the human factor is important because technological solutions tend to be too restrictive.
“Our economy and the Internet is based on an interconnected model, the ability to communicate broadly, to share ideas and when you restrict that through a technology solution you fundamentally take away that inherent advantage that we have had here in America,” he said.
Lakhani said humans in any organization will make mistakes that allow cyber intrusions. He said companies need to accept that reality and develop methods of identifying and counteracting threats.