Oil and gas companies, including some of the most celebrated industry names in the Houston area, are facing increasingly sophisticated hackers seeking to steal trade secrets and disrupt operations, according to a newspaper investigation and energy cyber folks are under the gun.
A stretch of the Gulf Coast near Houston features one of the largest concentrations of refineries, pipelines and chemical plants in the country, and cybersecurity experts say it’s an alluring target for espionage and other cyberattacks.
“There are actors that are scanning for these vulnerable systems and taking advantage of those weaknesses when they find them,” said Marty Edwards, director of U.S. Homeland Security’s Cyber Emergency Response Team for industrial systems.
In recent years, hundreds of Houston oil companies have found themselves a target for all sorts of potential intruders and pranksters, from so-called hacktivists with an ax to grind to more dangerous nation-state hackers who are keenly interested in gaining a foothold in U.S. energy infrastructure, according to federal cybersecurity officials and private security specialists.
“These attackers are adaptive and intelligent,” said Michael Assante, former chief security officer of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which regulates the security of electric grids. “That’s a scary thing to be up against.”
A yearlong investigation by the Houston Chronicle shows energy cyber security attacks could have vast consequences for the economy, the environment, public health and safety and homeland defense.
Steps are being taken to thwart attacks. For instance, the Coast Guard in a joint operation with Houston police patrolled the waters southeast of Houston last year conducting sweeps for unprotected wireless signals that hackers could use to gain access to facilities. The operation was one of the first of its kind in the U.S. concentrating on cyberattacks by sea.
But the vast network of oil and gas operations makes it difficult to secure. Thousands of interconnected sensors and controls that run oil and gas facilities remain rife with weak spots. Energy cyber security professionals have their work cut out for them.
“You could mess with a refinery or cause a vessel to explode,” Richard Garcia, a former FBI agent who became a cybersecurity specialist, told the Chronicle.