The threat of cyber attack will become a “major issue” for Network Rail in the next three to five years, as it increases its reliance on connected technology across the organisation.

The UK railway provider is currently undergoing a substantial multi-year project to modernise its network, with investment in a variety of technologies. This includes a dedicated fibre optic IP network, traffic management control system, mobile apps and temperature sensors across 23,000 miles of track.

The project to digitise its entire operations will require a major rethink of its cyber security strategy, said Peter Gibbons, professional head of cyber security at Network Rail. 

“We are going through a phase of mass transformation of the UK’s railway and we will become very reliant on that technology,” Gibbons told delegates at the Institute of Risk Management's Cyber Risk 2014 summit in London today.

“What we have got at the moment is relatively ‘Victorian’...and because that is all going to be replaced we have opened up to new risk, and for us that is a cyber risk.

“[Currently] it is far too difficult to carry out a cyber attack which would have a significant impact on the running of the railway, but we recognise that won’t always be the case. The physical threat will remain, but cyber security will be a major issue in the next three to five years.”

Security challenges

One of the main difficulties that Network Rail faces is managing its network of suppliers.

“We rely on tens of thousands of suppliers, and their cyber security risk is my cyber security risk,” he said. “We are starting to map that risk out, but managing supply chains is a massive challenge for us.”

The organisation is also coming under threat from the proliferation of mobile devices across its organisation. Last week, it completed the rollout of an iOS application that enables 8,500 frontline staff to access information such as what their next job is, where faults on the track are and much more.

“That means that my exposure from a cyber security perspective is now across the whole of the workforce, it isn’t just the people in the office and the people in signalling," said Gibbons.  

Traffic management system

Network Rail is currently in the process of awarding contracts to deliver the European Train Control System (ETCS), a traffic management system that is expected to vastly improve control of the train network.

However, Gibbons warned that the increased connectedness raises the bar for the impact of an cyber attack.

“The thing that is going to change as we become more reliant on that technology is that the single cyber incident has a much greater impact,” he said.

“So right now if you attack a signaling system in the UK, what you have is an extraordinarily complex target to attack - the systems are proprietary, the hardware is proprietary, there are a huge range of diverse systems across the country and the connectivity is completely different. But if someone were to carry out an attack with prior knowledge - ie an employee - the impact would be localised and they could only shut down the trains in that area.

“When we move to our new systems, we have a single computerised system called ETCS, and if you shut that down, you shut down all of the trains on the network. So the impact for us far greater."

Understand the threat landscape

In order to mitigate the cyber risk it faces, Network Rail has embarked upon a multi-year project to plan its response accordingly. This was evidenced in September last year with the release its Cyber Security Strategy document.

The business has also been working with external suppliers such as Logica to build security into its technology plans from the start.

While Network Rail realises that the real cyber threat to its business may be a few years away, it has taken proactive steps over the course of a number of years to prepare. 

This has led to the realisation that a comprehensive security risk strategy must address the likelihood that some attacks will be successful.

“We recognise that it is about to go from situational awareness to cyber intelligence. If we don’t understand who is attacking us and how and why, we can’t possibly defend against it,” Gibbons explained.

“That said, we recognise that we will not always be successful. It is going to be impossible to stop all attacks, ever. It is just not practical. Even if we had vast resource to even think to be able to do that - [cyber criminals] are always going to be ahead of us, so we have to plan for failure.”