The Rising Role of Cyber Security in Sustainable Development and Growth

Last updated: 07/07/2021

12 minute read

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The topic of sustainability is unmissable at the moment. As the urgency of the situation grows, it continues to demand attention from various sectors and industries within society. You may wonder where the cyber security industry fits into all of this. Whilst traditionally from very different worlds, they are united through the characteristics of constant innovation and the capacity to bring about real change for the better. Certainly, cyber security has a bigger role to play in the overarching battle for a more sustainable world than one may initially think. 

The Industry

As around two thirds of greenhouse gas emissions world wide are associated with burning fossil fuels1, renewable energy is a good place to start. The UK currently has the largest number of offshore wind resources in the world, equating to about 10GW in operation outside of the border2. Infrastructure such as this pushes us one step closer to meeting the UK’s target of reaching net zero emissions by 20502. It’s not just the UK that has set the ball rolling in the fight against greenhouse emissions, our friends across the pond are aiming for no electricity sector carbon emissions by 2035— as outlined by Biden3. So, whilst this growing industry means great things for our hopes of preserving the world we live in, mass investment means it is also shaping up to be a very lucrative market for cyber criminals to direct their efforts towards. Jim Guinn, global managing director for cyber security in energy, chemicals, utilities and mining at Accenture states, “The cybersecurity conversation in the renewable energy engineering and construction business is almost nonexistent today.”3 It is imperative that an industry gaining traction as quickly as this one protects itself with the necessary defense measures against cyber attacks.

How exactly are renewable energy plants made vulnerable to cyber hackers?

As mentioned before, sustainability shares close ties with new innovation. Renewables depend on control systems and distribution networks supported by technology. As many sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power are not readily available 24/7 like fossil fuels are— they require storage previsions that are also underpinned by technology4. IoT plays a huge role in the remote monitoring, control and regulation of off-shore wind turbines5. As we know, more than 75% of the code in use that makes these technologies a reality is open source, putting open source components smack bang in the middle of the sustainability conversation. However, older wind farms and their communication systems were never designed with the “security by design” mindset like the IEC 62443 standard6, similar to the GDPR principle7. As stated by Jim Guinn “renewables have lax cybersecurity standards, as they are an industry that may be more focused on building first and leaving cybersecurity as an afterthought”3.

Past attacks

A first example in which renewable energy facilities became victims of cyber attacks was the 2014 DragonFly hack8. The cyber criminal group used Remote Access Trojans (RAT) named Backdoor.Oldrea and Trojan.Karagany to infiltrate energy grid operators, major electricity generation firms, petroleum pipeline operators, and Energy industry industrial control system (ICS) equipment manufacturers located in the United States, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Turkey, and Poland. The hackers had been present in systems since 2011 before detection. Although reports indicate that the overarching aim of the hack was to gather intelligence, later investigation suggested it also had the capacity to take control of physical systems themselves. 

A second example in which renewable energy facilities have fallen victim to cyber attack was the SPower hack of 2019. Unfortunately, the group gained the title of being the first U.S. provider of solar and wind renewable energy to have been the victim of a cyber-attack. A hacker used a vulnerability in a Cisco firewall to interrupt the connection between sPower’s wind and solar power generation installations and the company’s main command center9

More recently, Colonial Pipeline’s hack10– reported on 7th May 2021 fell victim to a cyber attack, highlighting just how seriously energy supplies can be affected by cyber criminal organisations. As a result of ransomware, one of the U.S’ biggest pipelines was forced to shut down operations11. In the subsequently released statement it was revealed that after a 90M bitcoin payout, Colonial Pipeline said that remediation is ongoing and each system is being worked on in an “incremental approach”12. This attack compromised around 45% of the East Coast’s fuel, including gasoline, diesel, home heating oil, jet fuel, and military supplies. Whilst the energy jeopardised in this case was not renewable, Jonathan White, director of NREL’s cybersecurity program office highlighted that “As the penetration of renewable generation and EV charging stations increases in the future, the consequence of a successful attack is likely to be similar in aggregate to those of a successful attack to a natural gas, coal or nuclear plant today”3. Thus, a cyber attack such as the one launched on Colonial Pipeline gives a worrying insight into the potential damage that could be launched on the renewable energy sector. 

Risks for the future

After using the Meterian web scanner to evaluate the security of some major UK energy suppliers, we were able to see that similar issues are being faced. For example, the UK’s biggest supplier of energy, British Gas received a security score of 0 out of a best possible 100. Our report indicates that they currently have components in use that pose a threat to their system, as well as components in use with undeclared licenses.

Again, after scanning https://firstlightfusion.com/, one of the UK’s leading renewable energy suppliers, we found 2 high threat level vulnerabilities and 3 medium threat level vulnerabilities, as well as components in use with undeclared licenses. 

As this sector grows in both relevance and monetary value, there is a need for adequate cyber security that is growing in unison. According to industry growth trajectories, the renewable energy sector is set to become a big target of cyber hackers. As shown in this blog, experts have not been afraid to warn that more needs to be done to reinforce the security of renewable plants. The need is made even more important to protect consumers’ faith in new energy sources that play an important role in our fight against climate change. 

There is some evidence that the tide is changing to benefit the cybersecurity of the energy sector, both traditional and renewable. On 12th May 2021 Biden issued The Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity13. A few main points from the bill are:

  1. New and more stringent cyber security standards for government purchased software including multi-factor authentication and endpoint detection and response of software.
  2. Suppliers of technology must provide a SBOM (Software Bill Of Materials) that highlights the source of the software (supplier ID) that can be used to perform a risk assessment. This supplier ID can be used to alert high risk software if it is not verified by the digital signature applied to a SBOM14.
  3. There is to be the enforced sharing of intel surrounding cyber attacks, in the hope that the sharing of information will benefit us all. Jennifer Bisceglie, President and CEO of enterprise resilience company Interos Inc., stated that “we live in a world that people are, and companies are very concerned about their brand and reputation”15 and thus are reluctant to admit to cyber breaches. The new bill is set to remove fear of blame and shame and promote collaborative learning and continuous improvement for a safer and stronger society in the digital world.

An automatic, continuous line of defence protecting the open source components in use in renewable energy control systems is one way that Meterian can support the ongoing battle against carbon emissions. Whilst incremental in their support of rapid innovation, open source components are a pressure point to security systems of which cyber attackers are not afraid to make use of.

Visit our homepage to learn more about how Meterian can secure your businesses’ open source components—keeping cyber hackers out and your intellectual property in.

1 “Energy and climate change”. European Environment Agency, 11 May 2021, https ://www.eea.europa.eu/signals/signals-2017/articles/energy-and-climate-change

2 GOV.UK, 6 October 2020, https ://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-plans-to-make-uk-world-leader-in-green-energy

3 Vasquez, Christian. “CYBERSECUIRTY: Biden is eyeing renewable energy. So are hackers”. E&E News, 22 December 2020, https ://www.eenews.net/stories/1063721291

4 Ruhle, Micheal and Trakimavicius, Lukas. “Cyberattacks are the new challenge for renewable energy”. Politico, 18 July 2017, https ://www.politico.eu/article/opinion-cyberattacks-are-the-new-challenge-for-renewable-energy/

5 Taylor-Smith, Kerry. “How IoT can improve the performance of offshore windfarms”. NS Energy, 15 May 2020, https ://www.nsenergybusiness.com/features/iot-wind-power/

6 Freudenberg, Wolf K. “Why windfarms need to step up cyber security”. DNV, https ://www.dnv.com/article/why-windfarms-need-to-step-up-cyber-security-128082.

7 https ://gdpr-info.eu/art-25-gdpr/

8 “Emerging Threat: Dragonfly/ Energetic Bear – APT group”. BROADCOM, 30th June 2014, https ://community.broadcom.com/symantecenterprise/communities/community-home/librarydocuments/viewdocument?DocumentKey=16fb565a-8297-4641-8105-b5d0d4db3ee1&CommunityKey=30643d26-dab8-4c4b-a34e-5f6f02d58ff6&tab=librarydocuments

9 Cimpanu, Catalin. “Cyber-attack hits Utah wind and solar energy provider”. ZDNet, 31 October 2019, https ://www.zdnet.com/article/cyber-attack-hits-utah-wind-and-solar-energy-provider/

10 “Colonial Pipeline confirms it paid $4.4m ransom to hacker gang after attack”. The Guardian, 20 May 2021, https ://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/may/19/colonial-pipeline-cyber-attack-ransom

11 Galiordi, Natalie. “Colonial Pipeline aims to restore operations by end of the week after cyberattack”. ZDNet, 10 May 2021, https ://www.zdnet.com/article/colonial-pipeline-aims-to-restore-operations-by-end-of-the-week-after-cyberattack/

12 Stevens, Pippa. “Owner of pipeline shuttered by cyber attack aims to restore service by end of the week”. CNBC, 10 May 2021, https ://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/10/colonial-says-parts-of-fuel-pipeline-being-brought-online-aims-to-restore-service-by-end-of-week.html

13 The White House, 12 May 2021, https ://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/05/12/executive-order-on-improving-the-nations-cybersecurity/

14 Brooks, Richard. energycentral, 21 May 2021, https ://energycentral.com/c/ec/cybersecurity-executive-order-requires-new-software-security-standards-synopsys

15 Roby, Karen. MSN, “Expert: Biden’s executive order on cyber security is a good start toward protecting organizations”. 26 May 2021, https ://www.msn.com/en-us/money/smallbusiness/expert-bidens-executive-order-on-cybersecurity-is-a-good-start-toward-protecting-organizations/ar-AAKnd7E?ocid=uxbndlbing

The Rising Role of Cyber Security in Sustainable Development and Growth

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