Pandemic Has Raised Cybersecurity Risk but Opened Opportunity, Too

The coronavirus pandemic has created a huge shift in how work is done. More people are working from home than ever, and this shift has opened new risks to cybersecurity.

Person working at laptop computer

The coronavirus pandemic has created a huge shift in how work is done. More people are working from home than ever, and this shift has opened new risks to cybersecurity.

A recent discussion online held by the Energy Conference Network analyzed these risks, and the consensus seemed to be that the major risks are people-driven.

“When we say cybersecurity, you want to devolve to the technical. Do I have a VPN, do I have X, do I have Y? When, in reality, this ‘new normal’ in distributed work, the risks and the safety aspects are people-related things more than anything else,” said Art Conklin, professor of computer information systems and information-system security at the University of Houston College of Technology. “The technical side is easy, but I don’t think we’ve even talked about the people side.”

Conklin was joined by Michael Lewis, policy and framework adviser at Chevron, and Steve Aitken, the founder of Intelligent Plant, a company working on oil and gas data analytics. The discussion was moderated by Philippe Flichy, the Digital Transformation Team lead at Endeavor and recipient of SPE’s 2020 Gulf Coast Regional Management and Information award.

“The whole work environment, all this stuff, has tremendously changed, and I’m not certain that we’ve come to grips with that and how to manage it,” Conklin said.

Working remotely has allowed people the opportunity to work with others around the globe more easily. If one must work virtually with someone with whom they normally share an office, that same technology can be used to work with someone on the other side of the planet.

“When I say the people aspects,” Conklin said, “I’m not talking just about Michael suddenly clicking a link and answering and email. If we start holding these meetings around the clock because ‘global’ … well, you wake up like I did this morning really, really early to meet in Estonia after going to bed really, really late because I was in Australia , someone’s going to click on the wrong things. Someone’s going to do the wrong thing. Someone’s going to make a rash decision that they otherwise wouldn’t. And these all lead to risk, which is why oil and gas—and rightfully so—is so focused on safety.”

Another part of the change that comes with working from home is increased flexibility in hours worked, adding a new layer of complexity to the work/life balance and bringing risks that hadn’t been considered before.

“You’ve got a mindset when you’re at work, and you’ve got a mindset when you’re at home,” Aitken said. “And, if you’re switching on and off in terms of whether you’re working or not, there’s a very high likelihood that you’ll not be in the same mindset as you’d normally be in the job. There’s been reports of people working for banks having that issue where someone phones their house and gets access to banking systems because you’re in your house. You’re not thinking like you’re a bank employee. There’s some risks around that.”

The oil and gas industry is no stranger to risk, and the risk created by what has been called the new normal or working remotely is no different. Each company in the industry has built its own appetite for risk, and Conklin suggested the companies maintain their appetites.

“Oil and gas, the entire sector, everybody approaches it (risk) pretty much the same way, which is: ‘Safety’ is not just a word; it has to be how we run business. ‘Risk’ is not just a word; it has to be how we run business,” he said. “Just too much is at stake otherwise. From that standpoint, each firm in the industry has developed their own appetite, policy procedure, mechanism for managing that. That’s a strength of this industry. And that’s a strength that each of these companies have, and they need to keep it going and use that strength. Don’t suddenly say, ‘Oh, it’s a new normal. We don’t have to do risk anymore’ or ‘We’re going to do risk differently.’ I think that would be a huge mistake.”

With new risk, however, comes new opportunity. “A crisis is a great opportunity for change,” Aitken pointed out. He said that problems that occurred from infrequent situations will get more attention now that those situations are much more frequent. Aitken used the Zoom videoconferencing platform as an example. “How many people were using Zoom before and didn’t realize there were some issues there? And how quickly have they fixed it now that everyone’s using it?” he said.

The digital transformation is about to explode because of the changes forced by the pandemic, Aitken said. “This is like the digital transformation on steroids right now.”

Aitken said these forced changes could be good for the oil and gas industry. He suggested that many of the changes people had been trying to initiate in the industry were not strictly necessary. “And, when you don’t have to do them, there’s a natural human tendency to keep with what we’re already doing,” he said.

The forced changes do not need to be only local, relegated to the challenges of employees working from home. “We can really get stuff changed,” he said, adding, “That’s probably on a microscale and a macroscale. We can change things in the department, we can change things in the company, and we can change them in the industry. I feel this is a massive opportunity for change.”

One anecdotal benefit of the shift to remote working has been a perceived increase in productivity. “For us,” Aitken said, “I honestly feel like, the first three weeks of lockdown, we were putting out about three times as much stuff as we normally did. It was a serious increase. And, if you’d have told me that before it happened, I would have said you were mad.

“It never would have been proven without something like this happening.”