The Stuxnet worm, which NPR says was “arguably the first and only cybersuperweapon ever deployed”, rattled the world. It was meant to damage infrastructure in Iran related to the country’s nuclear program, but also raised fears about the worm being modified and turned back against the United States. Even this long after the incident and its public announcement, people are still debating how the new possibilities of cyberwarfare will affect national defense and international relations. And it isn’t only national governments who are concerned. Executives in some top oil companies are now saying the world’s oil supply is threatened by increasing assaults by hackers.
Like most industries, the oil industry is increasingly reliant on computers and computerized machinery. If someone were to successfully hack and gain access to systems at refineries or rigs, it could result in some pretty nasty scenarios: oil rigs set on fire, production interruptions, deaths, environmental damage. All of this would, in turn, stop or reduce the flow of oil to industrialized nations and dramatically affect its cost. There haven’t been any “major incidents” yet, according to the head of IT security at Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations, but the potential for oil companies to lose control of their systems is definitely there.
Ludolf Luhman, manager of IT at Shell, says that his company has seen more and more attacks on its IT systems lately, and that the motivations behind the attacks can be either criminal or commercial: “We see an increasing number of attacks with clear commercial interests, focusing on research and development, to gain the competitive advantage.” That sounds like pretty standard corporate espionage to me, but the potential for danger to workers and the environment if IT systems controlling machinery are breached is pretty unsettling.