While driving up the happiness quotient of UAE nationals, residents, and visitors, the digital building blocks of smart cities must be safeguarded against cyber attack.
It’s estimated that the UAE is the eighth most targeted country by cyber attacks in the world, but yet in population the nation only ranks 113th globally. What accounts for such a disparity?
Despite the domestic stability of the UAE, we live in a troubled Middle East afflicted by war, terrorism and political tension. While the geo-politics of the region provide part of the explanation, when they are coupled with the UAE’s global economic, social and political position, the country becomes a prime target for cyber attacks.
Globalisation brings its own challenges with 80% of the UAE’s population being foreign passport holders, while Dubai is set to become the world’s third most popular tourist destination by 2017 replacing Paris which is currently ranked third behind Bangkok (second) and London (first). This commitment to becoming a truly global commercial and intellectual hub has been the key to the UAE’s prosperity, but at the same time it places the country firmly in the sights of malicious hackers worldwide.
Our globalism is accompanied by a commitment to being on the leading edge of technology, and across the UAE we’ve been pioneering smart city technology ensuring that data on everything from electricity usage to the daily commute is captured, stored and analysed, allowing officials and the private sector to make informed decisions on how to improve efficiency and allocate resources.
This is an exciting moment, but our very sophistication provides further vulnerability to cyber attack by increasing “the attack surface” available to malware. This is of particular concern as essential services are increasingly linked to the internet. Where once a malware attack simply meant incapacitating office PCs, now with computer-controlled operating systems it can produce damaging real-world effects. Desalination plants in the region are typically built alongside power plants, for example. The steam turbines that produce the energy are powered by evaporated seawater, which produces the potable water.
But the energy-intensive process typically requires 10 times more energy than extracting and producing freshwater from the ground. Should power plants fall prey to a cyber breach, this leaves cities acutely vulnerable to an attack on its desalination plants.
With increased connectivity and sophistication of technology comes increased vulnerability and yet the cyber security sector has only provided a patchwork quilt of resilience. Too often cyber security is an afterthought, added haphazardly to legacy infrastructure or only in the final stages of new technology builds. This is an inadequate response to the pressing and growing challenge we face.
We need to completely change our mind set across the UAE, and indeed the globe, building in cyber resilience from the beginning, ensuring that security protocols become part of our way of thinking. This needs to be a collaborative effort with the public and private sectors working hand in hand to ensure that organisations put cyber security at the core of their strategies. This can only be achieved by ensuring that the UAE combines home grown cyber security experts and education with the ability to attract the best global talent to live and work here.
This model of fostering local talent, while working with the best in the world is the surest way for the UAE to maintain its winning position as a global hub, without compromising on security. Cyber security is just as important to defending the nation as the soldiers and tanks of our army; we can only be truly secure if that cyber shield is held close by, not borrowed from overseas.