IT professionals in the UK believe that a major attack on some part of the critical national infrastructure is imminent.

Battersea Power Station Snags £790m Bank Loan (Photo: Reuters)
Power stations, like this former one at Battersea, could be the target for cyber-attacks.

Research has shown that 41% of IT professionals believe it is only a matter of time before there is a major cyber attack against the United Kingdom's critical national infrastructure (CNI).

The research, commissioned by RedSeal, of 350 IT professionals found that 17% are simply not convinced it will happen. Also, only 44% of respondents said that they could sincerely say that their company is secure, while 36% said that they could not.

Commenting, Bob Tarzey, analyst and director at Quocirca, said that while the majority seem not to think a CNI cyber-attack is likely he asked why IT leaders or indeed analysts would know the answer to such a question.

"There is no doubt that certain terrorist groups and some nation states see a vested interest in damaging this country in whatever way they can, who knows if they will succeed at some point? If you asked me on 10 September, 2001, did I think the twin towers would collapsed the next day I would have said 'no'. I have no doubt the defenders of CNI see themselves as in some sort of cat and mouse game with would-be attackers and that includes cyber-threats," he said

Tom Cross, director of security research at Lancope, said: "With respect to threats against critical infrastructure, the vulnerability is there, but it is difficult to predict when attacks are going to happen. Security vulnerabilities have existed in critical infrastructure for many years, and warnings about that have been repeatedly issued.

"Some progress has been made in improving the security of these systems in recent years, particularly in the wake of the Stuxnet incident, which demonstrated to people that the threat is real. However, actual attacks occur when the vulnerability aligns with the strategic interests of an attacker. It is hard to say when and where that is going to happen."

Also, the research found that 34% of respondents believe that they are constantly playing a game of cat and mouse when it comes to securing their systems from the cyber-crime community. Tarzey said that it seems strange that they would think not. "Cyber criminals and hacktivists are getting more sophisticated, so are the defences, call it cat and mouse, call it an arms race, there is no doubt in my mind it is happening."

Cross said that this depends on the nature of the attacks that your organisation is experiencing. "Most botnet operators are looking for targets of opportunity – if you have your security ducks in a row, they will move on to another target," he said.

"However, sophisticated, persistent attackers of the sort that we associate with nation-state sponsored espionage have a completely different character. They will persist in targeting your network despite the steps that you are taking to detect them and keep them out, and when you discover them, they will change tactics in order to stay invisible to you."

The survey also found that 43% of respondents do not have visibility into their global network, while 31% said that they have so much vulnerability that they cannot see what is critical.

Parveen Jain, CEO at RedSeal, said: "It's pretty clear that the majority of today's companies just don't have any visibility into their networks and therefore don't know what needs protecting and what doesn't. We often see major corporations being attacked hundreds of thousands of times a day, but as they don't know which attacks are the most harmful, they don't know where to put up their defences."

"The cyber-criminal community know that companies are overwhelmed with too much data and don't have the resources or tools to protect their most valuable assets, so they take advantage of the weak spots."

Dan Raywood is editor of IT Security Guru

IT Security Guru