Malta’s cyber defence - Martin Scicluna
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Malta’s cyber defence - Martin Scicluna

For those my age who, as foot soldiers, fought and won the Cold War, Russia’s bungling spies in Salisbury and outside the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Warfare (OPCW) in The Hague, have been a source of great amusement.

The day when Russian spies are shown to have been picked up and sent packing while trying to hack an office building in The Hague – leading indirectly to the detailed identification of more than 300 other Russian spies –  is a poor advertisement for Russian intelligence. Unprecedented joint disclosures by the British, Dutch and American governments of global trouble-making by the GRU (Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate) have exposed it as inept and indiscriminate. The fiascos in Salisbury and The Hague have made it look ridiculous.

But Russian cyberwarfare is not a joke. The Skripal affair began with an attempted murder. An innocent woman has died. Russia’s record of failed hacking of a US nuclear power company, of athletes’ anti-doping agencies and a government investigation into the destruction of the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet MH17 in 2014, as well as the successful hacking of the Democratic National Convention and several others, demonstrate the promiscuous scope of the Kremlin’s cyber activities across the globe.

Over the last year, we have seen a significant increase in the scale and severity of malicious cyberattacks globally from criminals, hackers and foreign intelligence services. Threats to cyber security are increasingly organised and transnational with no respect for geographical borders. The changing nature of warfare means civilians and private companies must be as vigilant as the military.

There are lessons here for neutral Malta. In July last year, a massive malware attack (known as  the NotPetya virus) hit Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, whose ships use the Malta Freeport as the company’s hub for the central Mediterranean. The virus disabled virtually all the logistic giant’s IT infrastructure. It took IT specialists 10 days to restore the system. But by then Maersk had lost close to $300 million.

Eighty per cent of the world’s trade travels on ships. Attacks on companies like Maersk matter to governments, and to all of us. Malta imports virtually every item of food and all its vital necessities to keep its people from starvation or economic catastrophe. If Maersk, or any other shipping company importing to Malta, were hit by an attack more powerful than the malware that targeted it last year, Maltese consumers would quickly feel its disastrous consequences.

Malta is not alone. All western countries face similar challenges. Dealing with these new security dangers requires new thinking

If this is not sufficient warning, consider if attackers targeted the power station and electricity grid, or the IT network that sustains daily civilian and business life. The US grid has already been attacked by hackers reportedly operating as proxies for foreign governments. European power plants have been targeted too. Last year, the WannaCry virus (traced to North Korea) critically affected 48 hospitals in the UK.

The NotPetya attack that crippled Maersk was initially targeted at Ukraine, where hospitals, banks and utilities were hit and disabled by the virus. It was traced to Russian military hackers. A report by the US Senate foreign relations committee said that between 1992 and 2006 Russia cut off energy fifty-five times in other countries.

Malta is not immune. We have open markets and an open society. Our major infrastructure assets are government-owned: water and electricity utilities and hospitals. Moreover, our private banks, the international airport, financial services and major companies in strategic sectors are all vulnerable to the kind of disruptive hack experienced by Maersk. The problems posed by hybrid warfare have never, I suspect, come up on the Maltese radar. We have, so far, blissfully failed to realise that cyberwarfare could cripple us.

Malta needs to wake up to the increased threat facing it. Releasing computer viruses does not risk the lives of soldiers or civilians. It requires no expensive military hardware. For the most part, the attacks are carried out by a variety of hacking units, using today’s revolution in electronics and computing to disrupt and sow discord in the cyber jungle which all advanced economies inhabit. For the most part, hybrid warfare cannot be traced, unless the attacker bungles it, as Russia did in The Hague.

The silver lining is that Western societies, including Malta, have the potential capacity to defend themselves against these vicious threats. What we need is modern deterrence through building resilience against cyberattack. This means individuals knowing how to protect themselves from crime online, but also businesses being aware of the threats they face and their own vulnerabilities.

It also means the government bolstering defences in our critical national infrastructure against cyberattack by strengthening its capability to detect and defeat attacks in cyberspace. Deterrence through resilience will enable us to face adversaries with the knowledge that they cannot bring us to our knees. Knowing our strengthened resilience, any potential adversaries will be less inclined to attack or threaten us.

But to enable us to develop a new defence model requires us to acknowledge our acute vulnerability to what, for Malta, would amount to a new form of non-traditional defence: cyber defence. Malta is not alone. All western countries face similar challenges. Dealing with these new security dangers requires new thinking and intensified cross-border cooperation. Malta needs to think about hostile state activity – be it hacking our vital infrastructure, low-level money-laundering, fake news or disinformation - as if it were terrorism.      

Malta has the manpower expertise and the technological hardware to develop a plan for deterrence against crippling cyberwarfare attacks. To curb the effects of cyberattacks, we have to be prepared to fight fire with fire. This will involve government pooling information with private companies, including Internet Service Providers, which are facing similar vulnerability to cyberattacks, to help them identify and protect themselves from malicious activity on their internet systems.

It will mean establishing an operational partnership with the private sector to share information on threats to cyberspace. It will also entail working with other countries to ensure we can cooperate on cross-border law enforcement against cyber criminals. The changing nature of conflict means civilians and companies must be as vigilant as the security forces. The formation of a national cyber security centre should be the first step.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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