UAE works to counter evolving cyberthreats

The value of military deals announced during IDEX and NAVDEX totalled $4.6 billion, with 20 contracts awarded to local companies and eight to international firms.
Sunday 24/02/2019
Major deals. Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan attends the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, February 17. (Reuters)
Major deals. Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan attends the International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, February 17. (Reuters)

ABU DHABI - As the world shifts towards integrating artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning into modern life, the defence industry in the Gulf is following suit.

With the United Arab Emirates introducing its AI strategy in 2017, transforming itself into a smart society and with an estimated 50 billion devices to be connected by next year, new models of threat are expected to emerge, turning data into the new oil.

“The UAE is moving towards depending more on AI and trying to be a hub in this field but with this come more challenges from the side of technical security and governance, as well as training, awareness and building a culture around it, said Mohamed al-Kuwaiti, special adviser at the Supreme Council for National Security, at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi.

Al Kuwaiti spoke of reaching “cyber-resilience.”

“From big data analytics, AI, smart cities, the Internet of Things and autonomous systems, countries and militaries are focusing on building these systems,” he explained. “Many of those industries and governments are moving [in that direction] to successfully conduct their mission.”

Adopting AI into defence missions will require turning towards the rest of the world, such as the United States and NATO, to learn the latest practices on their use and application. Although still in its early stages, Kuwaiti said companies in the sector were building many of those aspects into their systems, while keeping the last say for humans.

“This will always be the case,” he said. “Machines can perform the analysis, finding and fixing where need be but humans will have the last word.”

The Internet of Things poses the greatest challenge to the defence industry, he noted, as more devices come online.

“The more dependency a nation has on information technology, the more damage it could suffer in case of cyber or electronic attacks,” he added. “Future cyberthreats include cybercrime, cyberterrorism and cyberwar. The threat has moved from a theatre in which you could easily define a real place of action to somewhere you are unable to take notice whether there is organised crime happening.”

Ransomware has increasingly spread, with programmes such as Stuxnet, Flame and Shamoon, which was used in an attack on oil company Saudi Aramco in 2012 and deleted data on more than 35,000 of its computer systems.

“Defence communities are pursuing opportunities to develop innovative capabilities that will enhance their ability to anticipate, mitigate, respond to, recover from and, if necessary, defeat novel emerging threats,” said Yehya al-Marzouqi, executive director of strategy at the Tawazun Economic Council, the body in charge of developing a UAE defence industry.

“Development of new Fourth Industrial Revolution technology-enabled capabilities will require development of new operational concepts in order to optimise their strategic, operational and tactical utility.”

He said this constitutes another opportunity to create advantages for military and security communities and the global defence industry, which can take a leading role in conceptualising applications of the new technology they develop.

“Collaboration among academia, government and industries is vital in order to design, develop and deploy fit-for-purpose solutions to future challenges,” Marzouqi said.

Work is kicking off in schools and universities, with initiatives across the United Arab Emirates targeting students from a young age. Cyber Quest, by the country’s Signals Intelligence Agency, was designed to encourage and motivate the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

Some of the workshops added to last October’s edition include “Extreme Soldering,” which discussed the creation of electronic tools through integrating electronic parts, and “Artificial Intelligence” to learn different types of AI and how coding is used in programming devices.

“We are trying to embed many of those cybersecurity aspects in the curriculum to spread such awareness and move towards more programming and data scientist majors,” Kuwaiti said.

Ultimately, countries will have to secure their defence systems — and fast. Research and Markets said that in 2017 the region’s cybersecurity market was expected to nearly grow from $11.4 billion in 2017 to $22.1 billion by 2022.

A 2016 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers said the Middle East is a target of more cyberattacks and with larger financial losses than any other region in the world.

Matthew Cochran, chairman of the Defence Marketing Services Council in Abu Dhabi, said legacy systems that do not have security but are in use at large power grids could be the largest challenge.

“Until a complete overhaul in Fourth Industrial Revolution systems is done, we are all at risk,” he said. “In today’s world of the Internet of Things and AI, it is critical that, not only defence companies, but all organisations look at cybersecurity and how to make their offices, banks, schools and homes safe.”

The value of military deals announced during IDEX and NAVDEX totalled $4.6 billion, with 20 contracts awarded to local companies and eight to international firms.

The American company DigitalGlobe received $41.5 million to provide space imaging services for UAE armed forces and $25.5 million was awarded to the French company Thales to for Captas-type sonar for the UAE Navy.

A $6.5 million contract was awarded to Al Jaber Group to provide technical support services and supply spare parts for military vehicles, while $8.2 million was given to Al Rumaithi to supply spare parts, repairs, technical consultations and training for all UAE armed forces units.

Tawazun Economic Council invested $125 million in the Russian automotive brand Aurus, which specialises in luxurious and armoured vehicles. The investment for 36% share of capital is to be directed towards the development of the company’s manufacturing facilities and capabilities.

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