UAE’s cyber-threat landscape reaches critical level, DarkMatter warns

Semi-annual Cyber Security Report for 2019 reveals critical infrastructure sectors are popular targets

Cybersecurity breaches in the region pose a genuine risk to critical sectors Sabbagh, warns.
Cybersecurity breaches in the region pose a genuine risk to critical sectors Sabbagh, warns.

A new report by DarkMatter Group has found cybercriminal attacks in the UAE and Middle East are widespread, frequently undetected, and often state-sponsored

The first semi-annual Cyber Security Report for 2019 by the cybersecurity firm reveals that critical infrastructure sectors, including oil & gas, financial, utilities and transportation, are in the firing line from a growing incidence of cyberattacks across the UAE and wider Middle East.

“Cybersecurity breaches in the region pose a genuine risk to critical sectors as cybercriminals harness new technologies to launch sophisticated and targeted attacks,” said Karim Sabbagh, CEO of DarkMatter Group.

“The intent of the attacks we’re observing is to undermine the progressive social, economic, and digital agendas in the Middle East. Organisations in the region have a short window of time to transform their cybersecurity posture and demonstrate stronger resilience in the face of escalating and increasingly sophisticated cyber security threats,” Sabbagh added.

Cybercriminals are aiming their weapons where it hurts the most at critical infrastructure, with potentially devastating effects on the security of nations and their citizens. The report found that the most significant threats to regional critical infrastructure organisations came from eight malicious threat actors and campaigns, motivated by espionage and then sabotage. Spearphishing was found to be the principal method of attack to gain access to targets.

Key economic pillars at risk

The report focuses on the global significance of targeted attacks on the UAE’s critical infrastructure sectors. Of these, the oil and gas sector faces the greatest vulnerability to cybersecurity breaches. In the Middle East, an estimated 75% of regional oil and gas companies have had their security in their operational technology compromised. The commercial and strategic importance of this industry to the region makes it an attractive target for geopolitical or economic rivals.

The financial, transportation, and water & electricity sectors also face widespread risk from advanced cyberattacks.

DarkMatter’s analysis identified intrusion sets such as Bitter, Molerats, MuddyWater, Chafer, DarkHydrus, Shamoon 3, OilRig, and DNSpionage, which are actively deployed in the region with the objective to disrupt critical infrastructure sectors. Shamoon 3 in particular has been deployed with the intent to sabotage major organisations.

Digital ecosystem vulnerable to attacks

The UAE has the second-highest smartphone adoption rate globally and is one of the world’s most digitally interconnected societies. This digital ecosystem offers an expanded surface for cyberattacks. DarkMatter observed numerous incidents across the region where critical infrastructure was compromised through technology-connected assets.  Most of the attacks leveraged outdated and unsupported software, and weak passwords resulting in unauthorized remote access.

Q1 2019 highlights

- 75% of intrusion sets documented in DarkMatter’s review were motivated by cyberespionage actions, such as stealing remote access credentials and personal information.

- 75% of observed UAE domains are hosted outside the country, placing sensitive data at high risk.

- 91% of organisations assessed by DarkMatter had outdated software and were missing critical security patches; 83% used unsupported software.

- 91% of assessed organisations were vulnerable due to weak or default passwords.

- 87% of assessed organisations used insecure network protocols.

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