Young cyber-experts warn that UAE is too easy to hack

Two Emirati women training to become expert 'ethical hackers' represent the future in the fight against computer-based crime.

Hanadi al Zaabi, 21, warns that hacking tools are becoming much easier to obtain.
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ABU DHABI // The UAE's computer networks are weak and susceptible to attack, say two students who are training to be the country's future cyber crime experts.

Hanadi al Zaabi and Asma Aidrous, fourth-year Information Security students from Zayed University, are the first Emirati women to be awarded the certificate in Ethical Hacking from the International Council of Electronic Commerce Consultants. Known as the EC Council, it was founded in the US following the September 11 attacks.

"Every day, people are becoming familiar with hacking, and hacking tools are becoming much easier to obtain," said Ms al Zaabi, 21.

Ms Aidrous, also 21, said, "The systems here are not secure. It's too easy to hack."

The women will both go on to study for a Masters in Digital Forensics degree, also at Zayed University, later this year. "We must raise awareness of the issue, making people more aware of the need for security," said Ms al Zaabi.

The women, who took the certification in their free time during the summer, covered areas such as e-mail penetration, viruses and hacking laws.

In 2007, the first known case of cyber warfare occurred when Russia froze Estonia's infrastructure, including banks and government agencies, through remote computer access after Estonia removed a symbolic Soviet war memorial, causing offence to its neighbour. More recently in Iran, the Stuxnet virus disrupted nuclear activities at the Bushehr plant after hackers infiltrated the system.

Maurice Danaher, an assistant professor in the college of information technology at Zayed University, said: "Cyber crime is recognised around the world now as a growing threat, second to the nuclear threat. We're seeing a proliferation of crimes on the internet now. Hackers could bring the country to its knees through infrastructure like attacking the power or desalination plants or banks."

Around 200 people, mostly expatriates, have taken the ethical hacking qualification in the UAE over the past three years. Many work for ministries such as the Ministry of Presidential Affairs, the police or companies such as the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

So high is international demand for experts, the qualification is available in 60 countries.

Only specialists with a proven track record can learn these potentially destructive skills, especially in organisations relating to national security, such as the UAE's Computer Emergency Response Team, set up more than two years ago by the Telecommunications Regulation Authority.

George Jason, from the EC Council, said: "This is an offensive defence. Even before things happen, we know what the 'bad guys' can do."

Subela Bhatia, also from the EC Council, said: "It's a very new certification for this region so awareness needs to be created, but there are very well paid jobs out there, even in the recession, especially for Emiratis."

Faisal al Shamari, the chief information security officer at Abu Dhabi Police, was among the first batch of 11 graduates, all from Abu Dhabi Police, to graduate in March from Zayed University with the Masters in Cyber Crime degree.

"All crimes are evolving into having a high tech facet," he said. "Criminals and law enforcers are in a race. We don't want to be left behind."

The work at the police falls into two categories, he says: information security, including for example, ethical hacking, and secondly, cyber crimes such as fraud.

He says the country needs many more experts, with the UAE among the biggest consumers of technological devices from iPhones to the BlackBerry. The few existing specialists are given constant training and access to conferences overseas to help widen their knowledge.

"We need to build up our capacity to keep up with the challenges that come with the advancement of our society.

"Part of that is manpower, part of it is expertise and experience," said Mr al Shamari.

"Obviously, we are bringing experts from other countries while we advance this area, but if we don't build up our own expertise it will be a challenge," he added.

Leon Jololian, the dean of the faculty of information technology at Zayed University, said: "We're 10 to 20 years behind in this field here, but as it's an emerging area, there are many opportunities for the students."