Hackers could cause disastrous total facilities wipe-out

Read time 2min 50sec
Veronica Schmitt, lead forensic analyst at DFIR Labs.
Veronica Schmitt, lead forensic analyst at DFIR Labs.

Many people do not truly comprehend the extent to which computers control the modern world. Everything from traffic lights at intersections, to power plants have automated systems, and for good reason.

These programs allow for a level of efficiency and effectiveness that humans simply cannot provide.

However, this convenience comes at a cost, says Veronica Schmitt, lead forensic analyst at DFIR Labs, who will speak at ITWeb Security Summit 2019, to be held from 27 to 31 May at the Sandton Convention Centre.

Her talk is titled: "Total wipe-out: What could happen if cyber criminals successfully attacked a country's critical infrastructure systems."

According to Schmitt, there has not been a system designed that is completely impenetrable, and this is particularly true of the programs guiding the world's critical infrastructure. "Facilities such as power stations are a major attack vector for hackers with the expertise necessary to break into them, and loss of control over them could be disastrous."

Cyber crime vs cyber warfare

Schmitt says a clear distinction needs to be made between cyber crime and cyber warfare.

Cyber crime refers to offences which are committed with criminal motives, often with the goal of financial gain for attackers, which intentionally harm the reputation of the victim or cause physical or mental harm or financial loss.

Cyber warfare refers to the politically motivated attacks that can destroy data or cause physical harm to a country's critical infrastructure. An example of this would be the cyber attacks which took place against Estonia, Georgia, and the Ukraine.

The consequences of cyber warfare can be dire. "The worst case scenario when critical infrastructure is targeted could be the loss of human life. In addition, when a country's critical infrastructure is taken down, the country will fall into chaos."

She believes prevention is not an option as, inevitably, a country at some point in time will be hacked. "The main question is whether they will be able to detect the compromise early on in the attack. The focus should be on hardening the infrastructure to such a degree that a country is no longer an easy or soft target."

Secondary to this would be a disaster recovery management plan that a country needs to have in place to survive total darkness or wipe out of its critical infrastructure. "A contingency plan is needed to survive this as much as one would need to survive a flood. The concerning part is that I don't think the majority of smaller countries have considered cyber warfare as a notable threat which should be planned for, often dismissing the likelihood of them being a target."

Delegates attending Schmitt's talk will learn about the systems which are critical to a country, how they work and can be affected by malware or compromises. She will also outline previous attacks which have taken down critical infrastructure. "The perfect storm in a teacup," she concludes.

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