Beware of cyber attacks, Middle East governments warned

Regional governments must take more stringent measures to secure their military and government satellite communications, according to experts.

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ABU DHABI // Regional governments are being warned to beef up the protection of military and government satellite communications in the face of a rising tide of cyberattacks.

"Cybersecurity is a problem all over the world," said John Sheldon, the president of Torridon Group, an independent space and cyberspace consulting firm based in Washington.

"But there is problem in the Middle East in general because there aren't necessarily universal standards ... in critical sectors such as banking, oil and gas, and communications."

He was speaking on the sidelines of the Milsatcom Middle East conference, which ran alongside the Global Space and Satellite Forum in Abu Dhabi yesterday.

Mr Sheldon said the problem was global. "Cybersecurity threats against satellite-related systems should be taken seriously," he said. "[They] are becoming more sophisticated and more aggressive in attacking systems."

Adopting a simple set of protocols would defeat 80 per cent of hacker threats. "They can be easily thwarted if you take basic cybersecurity guidelines," he said. "If you can get rid of that 80 per cent threat environment, you're only worrying about the big stuff that requires more specialist help. Governments should provide guidelines and actions of enforcing that."

In the UAE, companies in various sectors have started getting together to identify the generic threats and agree on ways to deal with them.

"That's encouraging, but we need the government to step in at some point, adopt standards and appoint a ministry or agency to deal with them."

Last year, a cyberattack on the Saudi Arabian firm Aramco wiped out data on 30,000 of its computers. "The Middle East has a problem," said Mr Sheldon. "There were sloppy cybersecurity practices that made it easier to get in so it's about installing a cybersecurity culture. It's not enough to just buy the latest cybersecurity software."

Technical measures alone are necessary but not sufficient. "The threats have become more sophisticated. People are complacent about it, but when you're dealing with information that's valuable to you, it's important," he said. "If you think you're not vulnerable to an attack or exploitation, think again."

Another major issue facing governments is the jamming of satellite communications. "Threats to military satellite communications include interference, jamming, eavesdropping and traffic spoofing," said Jean-Noel Barreaud, the Satcom marketing manager at Thales Communications and Security.

"Despite it not being perceived as a high threat, it has a major impact on the system availability and it is not acceptable on military satcom systems. So it is necessary to implement anti-jam technologies on critical military and government satcom systems."

While most breakdowns in satellite communication have mundane causes, the proportion of failures that are caused by malfeasance is on the rise. "We're seeing a rise in purposeful interference in this region," said Mr Sheldon. "Four to five years ago, three per cent of interference was purposeful, but now it's up to nine per cent."

He said more advanced technologies and more stringent controls on interference had to be put in place. "We need better geolocation, co-operation and technologies so we can actually pinpoint where the jamming is coming from," he said.