Air travel needs cybersecurity, now tighter than ever

Published: July 2, 2019 1:31:14 PM

Cybersecurity topics should not be considered only at a technical layer: even if these attacks are mainly performed on the IT infrastructure

By Maneesh Jaikrishna

Today, cyber threats have been looming over all sectors of the economy. The same can be said of the air transport industry. It is not surprising that cybersecurity has become a top priority for the industry.

The air transport community faces unprecedented risk from cybercrime – the result of digital transformation and extensive reliance on information and communication technologies. It’s no surprise that the EU’s European Aviation Safety Agency ranked cybersecurity as the aviation industry’s number one challenge. But that was back in 2016 and, since then, the malicious use of technology across air transport has increased at an exponential rate.

Airline and airports are ideal targets for hackers. They’re highly visible, for one thing. They offer huge potential for disruptions, and they’re closely tied to the identity of the host country – making them an ideal symbolic target. In this highly complex IT environment, there are myriad possible entry points for hackers to test potential vulnerabilities, introduce malware or launch more dangerous and life-threatening attacks. They rely on open communications across a complex matrix – not only the airlines and airports but also ground handlers, governments, air traffic management, OEMs, retailers and many more players. Consistent with other industries, ransomware (58%), phishing (52%) and advanced persistent threats (47%) are regular and frequent risks that are seen in the air transport industry.

Cyber-attacks: a tech or business issue?

Industry leaders are starting to introduce core building blocks needed in the defence against cyber-attacks. Airports and airlines are increasingly turning to a wide range of technology to better manage their operations and provide an improved service to their passengers. Securing these technology systems, protecting the information and data that these systems manage, requires an effective cybersecurity solution. Several airlines and airports around the world have been constantly under stress as along with ensuring that operations run in a cost-effective and secure manner. Apart from that, there is also an added responsibility to have a resilient response in place when it comes to cyber-attacks. Regulatory compliance and data privacy regulations have stimulated spending on security during the past three years. A recent example is GDPR coming into effect in Europe during 2018. These regulations translate into increased spending, particularly in data security tools such as identity & access management technology.

Often, cyber-attacks have been linked with it just being a business issue given that the consequences it can have on the aviation business are fatal. These cyber-attacks primarily target IT infrastructure hurting its passengers, airlines, airports and most importantly the business operations. In 2018, Atlanta Airport had to go through a lot of trouble, which caused cancellation of flights, passenger delays due to a major cyber-attack. This cost the city of Atlanta millions of dollars to fix the issue. Hence, it is quite evident that such threats cannot be taken up lightly as it possesses a threat to both technical and business operations.

Cybersecurity topics should not be considered only at a technical layer: even if these attacks are mainly performed on the IT infrastructure, in reality, their impacts are very operational. Our recent industry study revealed that airlines and airports plan higher spend on technology with priorities placed firmly on strengthening cybersecurity capabilities. Cybersecurity is one of two areas where most airlines have a ‘major program’ with large growth, where some 89% mention investment in cybersecurity initiatives (the other area being applications for passenger mobile services, at 90%). For airports, preventing disruption of operations is one of their top three concerns (97%). CIO agendas sharply focused on cybersecurity too, where it tops the list. Some 95% of airports confirm that cybersecurity initiatives are a priority area for their IT investments, whether as a ‘major program’ or for ‘R&D’.

Best practices for best defence

The critical requirement for strong cybersecurity is widely recognised, but existing challenges are delaying progress. These challenges include a lack of resources, budget and skills needed for advancing cybersecurity protection. Worryingly, our research suggests that at present only 41% of air transport organisations are considering and tracking cyber risks. However, awareness is improving and a further 42% are planning to list cybersecurity as part of a global risk register by 2021. Cybersecurity budgets are expected to grow and spending is shifting towards detection and prevention of cyber threats. The biggest barrier to effective cybersecurity programs is a lack of resources, which affects 78% of air transport organisations. We recommend appointing a dedicated Chief Information Security Officer (CISO). A dedicated CISO can be of pivotal importance for the empowerment and positioning of security teams at C-level for effective implementation of a cybersecurity program. Despite this, as of 2018, only 31% of the organisations have a dedicated CISO.

Building a good foundation is a top priority in all areas of cybersecurity. Hence, having a Security Operations Center (SOC) is key to an efficient cybersecurity solution as it acts like a cyber-control tower with an integrated combination of processes, people and technology to detect, analyse, respond to, and report on cybersecurity incidents. A SOC is often the first component security executives look at when building up their cyber defence capabilities. Only 33% of organisations have a SOC implemented today, but a further 47% plan for such investment by 2021.

With such information and technology in place, the aviation industry will increasingly be able to search for those attackers deeply nested into infrastructures of multiple organisations. This will result in providing a coordinated response to those who seek to take advantage of temporary security lapses, addressing the cybersecurity concerns that loom over as a threat to everyone.
The leading driver for cybersecurity investment is shifting from mere compliance to proactive protection with a focus on the detection of external threats and prevention of disruption. Technologies such as CASB, IoT Security and Identity-as-a-Service will see a strong increase in deployment in the next three years as the air transport industry’s digital transformation progresses and protecting the extended network takes centre stage.

(The author is the Vice President, Indian Subcontinent, Dubai, Eastern & Southern Africa, at SITA)

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