Ex­perts warn of cy­ber at­tacks on key fa­cil­i­ties

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - FLO­RIAN FRANK Flo­rian Frank is the di­rec­tor of the Yan­gon-based cy­ber se­cu­rity com­pany Busi­ness Devel­op­ment DLG Co Ltd.

Ex­perts have ex­pressed con­cern about the pos­si­bil­ity of cy­ber at­tacks on crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture in the coun­try, such as power plants, elec­tric­ity and wa­ter grids.

THIS year has seen a string of high­pro­file cy­ber-at­tacks in line with a con­tin­u­ous in­crease in world­wide cy­ber-crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity. While the ma­jor­ity of at­tacks to date are fo­cused on pri­vate busi­nesses such as fi­nan­cial in­sti­tutes, cy­ber se­cu­rity spe­cial­ists are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly wary of the po­ten­tial threats of at­tacks on crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture such as power plants, elec­tric­ity or wa­ter grids.

This brings up a lot of ques­tions for Myan­mar. The Rakhine con­flict has put in­ter­na­tional fo­cus back on the coun­try and emo­tions, es­pe­cially in the Is­lamic world, are run­ning high.

Is­lamist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS have re­peat­edly called for their fol­low­ers to wage a ji­had against Myan­mar. Coun­tries such as Turkey and Pak­istan have skilled hack­ers who in the past have acted out of re­li­gious mo­ti­va­tion. The at­tacks by Turk­ish hack­ers on web­sites of the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment in late Au­gust last year un­der­line the dan­ger from this re­gion.

Fur­ther­more, Myan­mar is a geostrate­gic hotspot, ef­fec­tively be­ing at the cross­roads be­tween the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent and South­east and EastAsia.

China with its Sino-Myan­mar pipe­lines, which trans­port gas and crude oil from the In­dian Ocean to South­west China, has a key in­ter­est in Myan­mar. This brings a new di­men­sion when look­ing at the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion – that of Myan­mar be­ing sucked into in­ter­na­tional con­flicts, in which the coun­try is not the pri­mary tar­get.

A good ex­am­ple of this is the BakuTi­b­lisi-Cey­han (BTC) pipe­line at­tack in Turkey. Bloomberg Mag­a­zine re­ported that the 2008 ex­plo­sion at the BTC pipe­line was the di­rect re­sult of a cy­ber-at­tack. The per­pe­tra­tors were able to gain ac­cess and ma­nip­u­late the con­trols to over pres­surise the pipe­line. The at­tack oc­curred on Turk­ish soil but is likely to be linked to the Russo-Ge­or­gian war, which started two days later.

But these are not the only fac­tors, which need to be taken into ac­count. Re­cently Myan­mar has also turned into the new­est bat­tle ground of Ja­pan and China’s in­fra­struc­ture race in South­east Asia. Add to that the myr­iad in­ter­nal con­flicts and one can be­gin to un­der­stand how pre­car­i­ous the sit­u­a­tion is.

To date Myan­mar has been spared from any ma­jor cy­ber-at­tacks on its crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture. This is not due to strin­gent pro­tec­tive mea­sures or ef­fec­tive diplo­macy but down to the fact that much of the in­fra­struc­ture dates back decades, in some cases even back to the British colo­nial era. The sit­u­a­tion is about to change though.

The year has started with a se­ries of an­nounce­ments by the gov­ern­ment in the power sec­tor. Four new power plants are to dou­ble the coun­tries cur­rent elec­tric­ity out­put to more than 6000 megawatts (MW). Chief among these projects is To­tal’s and Siemens LNG fa­cil­ity with an out­put of 1230 MW.

Myan­mar is un­de­ni­ably in need of large amounts of elec­tric­ity. Ac­cord­ing to the 2014 cen­sus only 32.4 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tions’ main source of light­ing is elec­tric­ity – can­dles make up 20.7pc.

High hopes were put on the NLD gov­ern­ment af­ter it’s land­slide vic­tory at the 2015 elec­tions. But it ap­pears that what the new gov­ern­ment brought to the ta­ble in en­thu­si­asm, is not matched in ca­pac­ity. The first two years of the NLD in power were mainly char­ac­terised by in­er­tia.

It would be un­fair to solely put the blame on the gov­ern­ment though. Decades of mil­i­tary rule have left most civil­ian in­sti­tu­tions in dis­ar­ray. In many ways Myan­mar is not just in a phase of tran­si­tion but one of in­vent­ing it­self new – a her­culean task un­der any cir­cum­stances.

This is an im­por­tant fac­tor to keep in mind. The gov­ern­ment needs to tackle is­sues on all sides and cy­ber se­cu­rity has not made it to the top of the list of pri­or­i­ties.

Af­ter all, an ab­stract, tech­ni­cal topic of such com­plex­ity is a dif­fi­cult sell to a con­stituency that is in dire need of ba­sic health­care, ed­u­ca­tion, elec­tric­ity and ac­cess to clean wa­ter. Also, there is a lack of un­der­stand­ing of the very real dan­ger the coun­try is fac­ing.

Myan­mar se­cu­rity ex­perts, who have asked to re­main anony­mous, have voiced their frus­tra­tion at the lack of even a ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of cy­ber-re­lated top­ics by de­ci­sion mak­ers. This doesn’t make the topic of se­cur­ing Myan­mar’s crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture less rel­e­vant though.

Itai Yonat, CEO of In­ter­cept 9500 Ltd, a leader in cy­ber in­tel­li­gence, ex­plains: “We have been ob­serv­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Myan­mar for some time now. The coun­try is in the unique po­si­tion of hav­ing to build large parts of its in­fra­struc­ture from scratch, giv­ing it the op­por­tu­nity to se­cure it from the get-go.

“To not act now would not just be care­less but reck­less. It’s not a ques­tion of if an at­tack on Myan­mar’s in­fra­struc­ture will oc­cur – but when.”

It re­mains to be seen if the gov­ern­ment will use this op­por­tu­nity.

Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing

A hacker shows his skills to Myan­mar Times pho­tog­ra­pher.

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