Hack to the future: why industry should fear the rise of cyber-espionage

The recent Talk Talk cyber-attack is a fresh reminder that we should never be complacent about the threat posed by hackers

Fortunately, initial investigations into last week’s Talk Talk hack suggest that the incident wasn’t as bad as was initially feared, with the network provider claiming that just a fraction of its four million customers are affected. What’s more, with reports suggesting that the hunt for a perpetrator has now shifted from Russian cyber-jihadis to a Northern Irish teenager, the breach has lost much of its sinister gloss.

Nevertheless, Talk Talk’s turmoil is the latest in a list of well-publicised cyber-attacks that will inevitably nibble away at public confidence in any company’s abilities to keep personal details safe from prying eyes. It’s not quite hide your money under the mattress time, but each fresh incident puts added pressure on any firm which holds customer data to put cyber-security at the heart of its business.

Even more concerning than the threat posed to individuals by rogue hackers is the growing number of attempted cyber-attacks on critical areas of infrastructure by organised groups.

This issue came to the fore last week, during the visit to the UK of Chinese President Xi Jingping, during which a number of security experts questioned the wisdom of handing control of large chunks of infrastructure – in particular nuclear power stations – to state-run firms from a country that has long been suspected of carrying out cyber attacks across the world. The concerns follow comments made by US FBI chief James Comey, who in an interview with CBS television earlier this month joked that there are two types of company in the US, namely “those who’ve been hacked by the Chinese, and those who don’t know they’ve been hacked by the Chinese.”

Whoever the perpetrator and whatever the target, the economic impact of cyber-crime is huge. According to a 2014 report by data specialist McAfee, the problem costs the global economy more than $400bn a year and with connectivity and the flow of data on the rise it’s a problem that’s only going to get worse.

Clearly, this is a priority issue across all sectors. But manufacturing, where the benefits of connectivity, through big concepts like Industry 4.0, are driving huge change, arguably has the most to lose.

It would be foolish to suggest that the world’s manufacturers aren’t alive to this threat.  But if the UK is really serious about leading the world in the kind of high-value technologies and techniques that guarantee a competitive edge it needs to make sure that it guards its assets more carefully than ever before.