How Prepared Is the Oil Industry for a Cyber War?

Computer Hacking

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hackny/

The next major conflict, if there is ever going to be one, will likely be very different from all past conventional wars we have seen so far, in that it will involve cyber warfare and cyber terrorism. Much of the fighting will be taking place over the airwaves and the Internet superhighways as experts on both sides of the conflict will try to inflict as much damage as possible on the other side.

But before you breathe a sigh of relief and start to believe that if the combat is limited mostly to a bunch of computer nerds playing war games on very expensive and very sophisticated computers in some sub-basement of the Pentagon, Whitehall or squatting in some ayatollah’s ante room, do not be fooled into a false sense of security. The damage caused by computer hacks can be as damaging as conventional weapons.

The incorporation of modern technology in warfare will dictate many of the terms of combat and very likely cyber warfare will play a major role in any future war.

Hackers working for foreign nations have already tried their hand at breaking into a number of important and sensitive sites, such as the CIA,’s main computer at Langley, VA., the Israeli Mossad, British, French intelligence agencies, NORAD, and a slew of government ministries and private companies computers and web sites.

So how will oil companies and networks associated with the flow of oil and natural gas fare? Not much better than any other entity. To date there have been a number of attacks against computers belonging to Exxon (NYSE:XOM), Shell (RDS), BP (NYSE:BP) and others, including a number in Central Asian countries. Private emails were intercepted and its contents made public, as was other sensitive company data. According to one source some countries are using expert hackers based in Mongolia, China, and India. The Mongolian mafia has in particular been very active in that prospect.

The real delicate data is not the company’s sensitive personnel files showing how much money a company’s CEO is making or the bribes he dishes out in order to smooth the way for a company project, nor copies of memos from the executive office. That is just window dressing. What the professional hackers working for foreign governments are after are the codes that will allow them to intercept the flow of oil and natural gas in computer-controlled refineries, or for that matter, the movement of oil through pipelines. Think of the devastating consequences that taking control of such an operating system will have.

When northern European cities are freezing in the dead of winter and need their regular deliveries of gas to heat homes and offices, rerouting the delivery route through hacked computers will introduce mayhem on a rather large scale.

When citizens show up at their banks on a given morning and realize that their entire savings accounts have been wiped out. When the electric grid is intercepted and cities are left in the cold and dark. When credit cards become worthless pieces of plastic. What then?

No doubt there are tremendous precautions taken with guardrails and firewalls in place. But hackers continue to perfect their skills in a never-ending game of cat and mouse with those trying to keep the computers safe, struggling to remain one step ahead of potential disaster.

Originally written for OilPrice.com, a website that focuses on news and analysis on topics of alternative energy, geopolitics, and oil and gas. OilPrice.com is written for an educated audience that includes investors, fund managers, resource bankers, traders, and energy market professionals around the world.

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