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Infrastructure blog

How secure is our infrastructure from cyber attacks?

27 February 2017

Two experts from Turner & Townsend give their thoughts on cyber security in the built environment.

How secure is our infrastructure from cyber attacks?

Kim Van Rooyen, Director, and Nathan Jones, Senior Project Manager, at Turner & Townsend will speak about the threat that cyber attacks pose to London, ahead of the first Preparing London for Change Lecture on 27 March.

What types of cyber attacks are there?

Cyber attacks come in many different forms. Nowadays, when people think of cyber attacks they think large-scale – a group of hackers working on behalf of governments trying to find out state secrets for example. However, cyber attacks can come from anywhere – teenagers seeing what they can do on a computer or a disgruntled employee looking to get some money or information out of their company.

Some attacks don’t even require a large amount of technical knowhow. It could be that software is not updated for a while or even giving open access to WiFi. Sometimes it can be as simple as the building management team not changing a password from its standardised settings so the building could be accessed by anyone.

Disrupted Denial of Service (DDoS) is a fairly recent form of cyber attack and is becoming more commonly used. Essentially, the network of an organisation is ‘flooded’ with data meaning the organisation cannot function. No damage is done nor data stolen, but the hacker can hold the organisation to ransom.

How safe are we from a cyber attack?

No network is 100% secure. Organisations have different levels of maturity in their cyber defences. The Government has started taking cyber security much more seriously and recently launched the National Cyber Security Centre, a division of GCHQ that will be a new nerve centre to manage cyber incidents. Responding to Government advice, creating and adhering to good practices and procedures and ‘policing’ people, including the supply chain, will all reduce your risk of cyber attack.

Take an example of malicious software (malware) being embedded into the system of a crane that had been delivered to a sensitive construction site. The crane needed to be connected to the sites network to enable ‘reachback’ (where the device talks back to the manufacturer or supplier) for system monitoring and performance. In this case, the site security procedures were watertight – every device that needed to connect to the network needed to be scanned and in this case the malware was found.

With so many connected devices, are we more at risk?

The market for ‘the internet of things’ is constantly expanding, so we have to take it as given that we will live in a more connected world. That doesn’t necessarily mean we have to be more prone to cyber attacks. Instead, we need to be savvier about what we do. How many of us leave our Bluetooth on? Or choose an obvious password?

If you go onto a construction site today, you’ll be given a safety briefing and protective equipment, and checked to ensure you are in the right condition to go on site. Yet, the site may have an open WiFi, leaving it open to attack. Cyber security needs to be considered in the same way that we approach the health and safety of people and that will take a cultural shift.

How does cyber security link to London’s infrastructure?

Cities like London are becoming ‘smarter’; people, places, spaces, buildings, infrastructure and devices are becoming ‘connected’ to one another.

Already the technology is available to monitor how many vehicles are on a particular stretch of motorway at any one time. Using this, it could be possible, if that motorway was particularly busy, to redirect drivers via an alternative route.

We could also place monitors on a railway bridge, which gives engineers real time information about the condition of that bridge and lets them know if and when maintenance is required.

This technology is needed and wanted as it will make all our infrastructure systems more efficient and make them easier to maintain. However, this infrastructure could also become more vulnerable to cyber attacks. We need to consider the threat early enough so it can be mitigated easily and cheaply.

Everything electronic emits a signal which can be interrogated from afar. Smart devices are never off (unless their power source is removed) so thought needs to be placed around fabric of buildings and how material and equipment is designed.

So we need to think about how we can make our buildings more secure. This involves thinking about things like the locations of server or hub rooms in relation to other equipment or the positioning of screens so that they are not in clear view through a window. Even where cables go and whether they are made from copper or fibre are considerations in making somewhere cyber secure.

What can civil engineers do to prevent attacks?

Being cyber secure is not about investing in more cyber. You could have biometric sensors that check the identity of everyone coming in and out of a site, but if the database with those identities is insecure then it certainly isn’t helping to protect people.

Instead, it’s about being aware of how you could be at risk. If you have hard drives with files on it, then those files can be accessed, so properly disposing of them is vital. Even computer screens can have images burned onto them if they are used frequently, meaning someone can access information even from a blank screen.

For civil engineers, this is particularly important. They need to be aware (and are becoming increasingly so) of the forms that threats could take and how to protect the systems they use.

Find out more

Kim Van Rooyen, Director, and Nathan Jones, Senior Project Manager, at Turner & Townsend will be speaking at the first Preparing London for Change Lecture on human threats to London’s infrastructure on 27 March 2017.

Book your free place now.