Cyber Security Awareness Increases in the Middle East

An oil refinery at night
An oil refinery at night
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An oil refinery at night
An oil refinery at night. Last year, Middle East’s largest Oil and Gas companies came under targeted attacks crippling their operations. Photo- Matt Jiggins (photo used for illustrative purposes only)

The devastating cyber attacks in Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s giant oil industry, in December 2012 was aimed at stopping crude oil and gas supplies, with an intent to cripple the world markets. The same stealth virus, “Shamoon” was also reported to have attacked systems at Qatar’s RasGas, one of the world’s largest producers of liquefied natural gas. The cyber attacks came at a time when there were reports of increasing tension between Iran and the GCC nations on Iran’s alleged nuclear programme. With increased cyber security threats and crimes in the Middle East, especially the GCC nations have realized the need for heightening cyber security awareness .

According to prediction reports for 2013 by Symantec, the UAE lists high on countries susceptible to cyber crimes. In fact the UAE ranked as one of the highest spammed countries in the world with 73%, according to Symantecs Global Security threat report, 2011.  According to the Norton Cybercrime report, 1.5 million people have fallen victims to cyber crime in the region costing the nation a whopping $2 million. This is the new age of an economic warfare. Nations worldwide are increasingly being aware of the threats the cyber world poses, to not just their national security but economic security as well.

With cyber security on high alert world wide, the upcoming SANS Abu Dhabi 2013 event, will address these very issues. Ahead of the conference, a leading security expert highlights several trends in the region.

“There is certainly a lot more discussion and interest both public and behind closed doors on the topic of cyber security,” says James Tarala, a highly respected security expert and Senior SANS instructor.

“The government of Qatar is now looking at new draft legislation and countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are clearly interested in avoiding incidents such as last year’s breach at Saudi Aramco in which hackers penetrated the organisation’s systems and infected some 30,000 devices with malicious software code.”

According to Tarala the Middle East reflects the wider global landscape where other commentators such as Richard Clarke suggest that 100% of the Fortune 500 have been breached in some significant way.

“Events like Stuxnet indicate that cyber warfare is also a tangible element which is made more complicated by the evolving political landscape across the region. There are also more targeted attacks originating from and impacting organisations within the region – a number we believe has grown over the last two years in certain major Middle Eastern countries.”

The region has a number of Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) and over the last year SANS has been involved in helping to organise formal, cross border gatherings to help InfoSec professionals share knowledge and help strengthen defences.

“The Critical Security Controls is a methodology that has been endorsed by a number of governmental departments and enterprises and if you look at the evidence, it is clearly able to stop a large number of common attack methods.”

In 2011, Research from the Australian Government Defence Signals Directorate indicated that simply implementing the Critical Controls effectively stopped over 85% of the attacks against monitored targets. As co-author of the SANS SEC566: Implementing and Auditing the Twenty Critical Security Controls – In-Depth course, Tarala believes defensive measures are essential but organisations also need to deal with breaches.

“No environment can ever be 100% secure all the time as applications, networks and people constantly change,” he explains. “So if a breach does occur, the course helps teach a method of dealing with the breach while re-securing the perimeter quickly and effectively.”

“In my view, the need for Information security professionals across the Middle East region is rising and anybody keen to understand a key fundamental set of skills for both defending against and dealing with the result of a computer breach should seriously consider implementing the guidance from the controls,” he concludes.

SANS SEC566: Implementing and Auditing the Twenty Critical Security Controls – In-Depth will be returning to the SANS Abu Dhabi 2013 event this March.

According to Symantec, Cyber crime has become a silent global digital epidemic, as depicted in the Infographic below.


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