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DNV: Energy executives expect more extreme cyberattacks, but defensive action is lagging

New research published by DNV reveals that energy executives anticipate life-, property- and environment-compromising cyber-attacks on the sector within the next two years.

According to The Cyber Priority, DNV’s research report exploring the state of cyber security in the energy sector, more than four-fifths of professionals working in the power, renewables and oil and gas sectors believe a cyber-attack on the industry is likely to cause operational shutdowns (85%) and damage to energy assets and critical infrastructure (84%). Three quarters (74%) expect an attack to harm the environment while more than half (57%) anticipate it will cause loss of life.

DNV’s research is based on a survey of more than 940 energy professionals around the world and in-depth interviews with industry executives.

Rising fears over new and more extreme consequences of cyber-attacks follow a series of high-profile security breaches in the energy industry in recent years. DNV’s research also indicates that concern about emerging threats has grown following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Two-thirds (67%) of energy professionals say that recent cyber-attacks on the industry have driven their organizations to make major changes to their security strategies and systems.

“Energy companies have been tackling IT security for several decades. However, securing OT – the computing and communications systems that manage, monitor and control industrial operations – is a more recent and increasingly urgent challenge for the sector,” said Trond Solberg, Managing Director, Cyber Security, DNV.

Six in ten C-suite level respondents to DNV’s survey acknowledge that their organization is more vulnerable to an attack now than it has ever been. However, there are signs that some companies are taking a ‘wait, see and hope for the best’ approach to address the threat.

Less than half (44%) of C-suite respondents believe they need to make urgent improvements in the next few years to prevent a serious attack on their business, and more than a third (35%) of energy professionals say their company would need to be impacted by a serious incident before investing in their defenses.

One explanation for some companies’ apparent hesitance to invest in cyber security may be that most respondents believe that their organization has so far avoided a major cyber-attack. Less than a quarter (22%) suspect their organization has been subject to a serious breach in the last five years.

“It is concerning to find that some energy firms may be taking a ‘hope for the best’ approach to cyber security rather than actively addressing emerging cyber threats. This draws distinct parallels to the gradual adoption of physical safety practices in the energy industry over the past 50 years,” Mr Solberg said.

Supply chain blind spots cause concern

DNV recommends that the first step to strengthen defenses is to identify where critical infrastructure is vulnerable to attack. While many organizations are investing in vulnerability discovery, these efforts are not being sufficiently extended to include companies they partner with and procure from.

Just 28% of energy professionals working with OT say their company is making the cyber security of their supply chain a high priority for investment. This contrasts with the 45% of OT-operating respondents who say expenditure in IT system upgrades is a high investment priority.

“Energy companies can have complete oversight of their own vulnerabilities and have all the right measures in place to manage the risk, but that won’t make a difference if there are undiscovered vulnerabilities in their supply chain. Our research identifies ‘remote access to OT systems’ among the top three methods for potential cyber-attacks on the energy industry. We would urge the sector to pay greater attention to assuring that equipment vendors and suppliers demonstrate compliance with security best practice from the earliest stages of procurement,” said Jalal Bouhdada, Founder and CEO at Applied Risk, an industrial cyber-security firm acquired by DNV in 2021.

More workforce training is needed 

Despite emerging cyber security threats, DNV’s research reveals that less than a third (31%) of energy professionals assert confidently that they know exactly what to do if they were concerned about a potential cyber risk or threat on their organization. This finding points to a need for energy companies to invest in training employees to spot instances of criminal attempts to gain access to their systems. Less than six in 10 (57%) of energy professionals say their employer’s cyber security training is effective.

“A company’s workforce is its first line of defense against cyber-attacks. Effective workforce training, combined with ensuring you have the right cyber security expertise in place, can make all the difference to safeguarding critical infrastructure. Our research shows a clear need for companies to carefully evaluate their investments in keeping their people well informed of how to identify and respond to incidents in a timely manner,” Mr Bouhdada said.

 

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