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Successful Attacks On Oil And Gas Companies Increasing, Survey Shows

What remains unclear is how many of them actually impact critical industrial control systems

The rate of cyberattacks and the number of successful attacks against organizations in the oil and gas industries are both continuing to increase, even as the ability to detect and respond to them is dropping, a new survey sponsored by Tripwire shows.

The security vendor commissioned Dimensional Research to survey IT professionals in the energy, utilities and gas industries and the results are based on responses from the over 150 professionals who participated in the study.

Eighty-two percent of the survey respondents said the number of successful attacks against their organizations had increased in the last 12 months. About 53 percent said the rate of cyberattacks, or attacks that were attempted but failed, increased between 50 percent and 100 percent during the same period.

At the same time, nearly seven in 10 of the respondents also expressed a lack of confidence in the ability of their organization to detect and stop such attacks.

The survey does not specify the attack types so no breakdown is available on how many of the successful attacks involved data theft, malware infections, distributed denial-of-service attacks, insider theft or sabotage.

The survey also leaves unclear how consequential the attacks were for the impacted organizations. Though reports about increasing attacks against organizations in the critical infrastructure sector often evoke wide concern, not all attacks are the same. A successful cyberattack on an industrial control system controlling critical equipment at an oil and gas company, for instance, would have far more damaging consequences than an attack on a front-end business server.

Even so, the numbers in the Tripwire report are significant. Unlike in the past, many industrial control systems these days are connected to the Internet and are therefore accessible externally. So a successful attack on a corporate network could potentially give attackers a way to also access the backend systems controlling critical equipment and infrastructure.

“One is a path to the other,” says Tim Erlin, director of IT security and risk strategy for Tripwire. “We know critical systems are connected to the Internet. So, in many cases, an initial attack may be a precursor to an attack on a more critical industrial control system,” he said.

According to Erlin, the survey results offer a couple of key takeaways. The increase in attacks against companies in the oil and gas sector shows that the threat environment has gotten a lot more dangerous while the increase in successful attacks shows that organizational ability to stop them is not keeping pace.

Companies in the oil and gas sector need to be thinking about how to reduce the attack surface so they are no longer an attractive target for threat actors. Just like car owners use the Club -- a physical locking mechanism that makes steering wheels immobile -- to make their vehicles harder to steal, organizations need to be installing controls that make them harder to break into, Erlin says. “By installing the Club, all you are doing is making your car less attractive than the next car down the line.”

Organizations in this sector should also consider implementing common security precautions like the principle of least privilege, log monitoring, and anomalous behavior detection capabilities, he said.

The results of the Tripwire survey echo concerns raised in a PricewaterhouseCoopers report as long as two years ago on growing attacks against organizations in the energy sector.

That report had warned about organized and well-funded threat actors increasingly launching targeted attacks to pilfer trade secrets and other data from companies in the oil and gas sector. While most attacks do not result in physical damage, some have, the report noted, pointing to the 2012 destruction of some 30,000 PCs at oil company Saudi Aramco by the Shamoon virus.

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