Cyber security risks loom for UK freeport projects

By Ian Hughes

Recent attempts by cyber criminals to attack North Sea infrastructure and the UK Critical National Infrastructure have significantly focused the minds of business owners and policy makers on cyber security. The risk of cyber attacks on critical infrastructure is not a new phenomenon, but poses a significant concern for UK freeport projects as global tensions escalate and state actors seek to weaken international opponents. This threat is heightened by freeports’ importance to national infrastructure, and the current lack of regulatory frameworks to protect them. Freeports and associated organisations can take proactive measures to address these risks and safeguard critical infrastructure.

How can freeports better protect themselves?

One of the most significant cyber security risks for freeports is the potential for cyber attacks on industrial control systems (ICS). These systems control critical processes, and can be targeted by cyber criminals to cause significant damage. For example, in the case of freeports, attacking an ICS used in the manufacturing of chemicals or operation of energy infrastructure could severely disrupt supply and put lives at risk. Cyber attacks can also compromise critical data, particularly in the energy and engineering sectors, resulting in significant financial losses, reputational damage, and intellectual property theft.

In light of the emergence of specific ICS malware, it’s incumbent on individual businesses within freeports to protect themselves. To minimise the risk of attack, organisations can secure systems internally using multiple layers of protection, including ‘secure by design’ principles when procuring new systems. Secure by design embeds security considerations into the design process from the start, ensuring all systems are adequately protected and negating the need for security add-ons or patches. Local freeport operators can also help individual businesses by developing a cyber security guidance plan (including cyber risk assessments), alongside establishing network segmentation, strict access controls, continuous monitoring, regular system updates, education and training, and an incident response plan covering all parties involved in the freeport.

Stronger security through collaboration

Individual organisations within freeport zones can leverage knowledge of their own ICS within a collaborative approach with other freeport operators and local government. By working together, stakeholders can pool their expertise and resources including personnel, information, analysis, and knowledge. This collaborative approach creates mutually beneficial partnerships that strengthen cyber defences, safeguards critical infrastructure, and ensures the smooth operation of freeport activities in the UK. Organisations can aid collaboration and therefore maximise security through:

1. Establishing regulatory guidance and policy frameworks to promote compliance.

2. Implementing robust security measures, supported by training programmes to raise awareness about cyber threats and promote best practices across freeport personnel.

3. Collaborating on incident response planning, regular security assessments, and coordination mechanisms between freeports and government agencies.

4. Sharing experiences on emerging threats, actively communicating with government agencies to enable the continuous refinement of policies and guidelines.

The opening of a new state-of-the-art cyber security lab in Cheltenham emphasises the growing importance of collaborative efforts to combat cyber threats. The lab can be used to check how safe vehicles, planes, and industrial systems are from cyber attack. In addition, the UK Resilience Framework focuses on a whole-system approach, emphasising the importance of involving the government, private organisations, and communities in building resilience. These developments underscore the significance of collaborative approaches to cyber security, sharing of threat intelligence, best practices, and resources to foster a collective defence against cyber security risks.

Collaboration is key to positioning the UK as an ideal location for emerging technologies and high value manufacturing, as it offers the most efficient and cost-effective way to ensure safe operating environments. Further support in the form of thought leadership, access to new technology, improved long term policy making, improved threat intelligence, and improved cyber training will help to achieve this goal.

Implementing defence in depth and secure by design strategies

To protect UK freeports and ICS infrastructure, a robust defence in depth strategy is crucial. This involves multiple security measures including firewalls that act as a barrier between internal networks and external entities; intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS) that detect and block unauthorised access attempts and malicious activities; and Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) solutions that collect and analyse data for real-time monitoring. Within a defence in depth strategy, regular cyber security assessments and employee education can identify and proactively address vulnerabilities. This mitigates risks and maintains the safe, reliable operation of systems by catching malicious activities like phishing.

Implementing secure by design principles for any new infrastructure or systems will further protect UK freeports by integrating cyber security into ICS design from the outset. Secure coding practices, information access management (IAM), and data encryption (at rest and in transit) help to prevent cyber threats from exploiting vulnerabilities and limit the potential impact of attacks. This proactive approach identifies and prevents security vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by attackers. Secure by design is based on several principles including least privilege protocol, defence in depth, fail-safe defaults, separation of duties, and auditability. The benefits are clear, improving resilience to attacks and saving costs by avoiding expensive post-breach security measures. All organisations, regardless of their size or industry, can incorporate this approach into their operations.

The threat of cyber attack is a significant concern for the UK Freeport project. However, proactive measures can be taken to address these risks, including implementing robust security measures, conducting regular assessments, and adopting secure by design principles. By taking these steps within a zone-wide security plan, UK freeports can ensure the safety and security of critical infrastructure and sensitive data while maintaining the trust and confidence of customers and stakeholders alike.

Explore more

Contact the team

We look forward to hearing from you.

Get actionable insight straight to your inbox via our monthly newsletter.