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Oil leaks

Michael Lewis, the forensic chronicler of the 2008 financial crash in The Big Short (among many, many other incredible books), made a headspinning comment this week: "There are six times more people over the age of 60 than under the age of 30 working in computer systems."

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Michael Lewis, the forensic chronicler of the 2008 financial crash in The Big Short (among many, many other incredible books), made a headspinning comment this week: "There are six times more people over the age of 60 than under the age of 30 working in computer systems."

 

He was making reference to the culture that helped enable the recent cyberattack that brought one of the United States’ biggest fuel pipes to a crashing halt and sparked a spike in petrol prices. The shutdown of the pipeline was precautionary; what the DarkSide cybercriminal group behind it had got their hands on was around 100GB of data from American fuel carrier Colonial Pipeline’s networks that they threatened to leak online.

 

The DarkSide group said: "Our goal is to make money and not creating problems for society." A blackly hilarious explanation both for its candour and the blatant untruth of the latter half of their statement. But they pocketed $4.5 million for the attack so they achieved their goal.

 

This week, another cyberattack on a New Zealand public health provider led to elective surgeries being cancelled. A separate one on the Thai affiliate of the Axa insurance company came away with three terabytes of personally identifiable information, medical records and claims.

 

The attacks have reopened debate about whether ransom payments for these kinds of attacks should be banned. Choppy waters to navigate either way. Ban payments and ransom groups will likely get more ambitious in just how much trouble they can cause; a game of digital chicken with high stakes. But continue to pay a ransomer and you might as well place a sticker marked ’SOFT TOUCH’ on your forehead.

 

But it underlines the challenges ahead. Connectivity will underpin every single smart city and this could mean an surge in ajar backdoors to exploit. If we are further interconnected, a hacker breaking into a traffic management system for example could then run riot across healthcare systems, fibre networks, energy and beyond.

 

It states the obvious that security should be built into every single system from the ground up but the reality reveals that sometimes the obvious genuinely does need to be said. In Japan, a staggering 14 million people were still using Windows 7, an operating system that dates back to 2009, when security updates were switched off last year. That’s great news for cybercriminals but extremely worrying for the rest of us. What’s worse is that the recent Axa and Colonial Pipeline attacks were made public - we have little idea of how many take place with a compliant company willing to quietly pay the ransom and move on.

 

Lewis’s new book The Premonition looks at the Covid-19 pandemic but his warnings about public health can easily be transferred to security systems: "The things that are actually going to defend us have not been refreshed." Unless cities quickly identify its weak points and update them, they can expect to pay up sooner or later.

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