Eco-hacks: The intersection of sustainability and cyber threats

September 13, 2023  |  Nahla Davies

The content of this post is solely the responsibility of the author.  AT&T does not adopt or endorse any of the views, positions, or information provided by the author in this article. 

Environmental sustainability is more important than ever before for organizations across all sectors. Sustainability concerns including geopolitics, future-focused developments, advanced ESG reporting, and building sustainability into supply chains going forward are all significant trends shaping businesses in 2023 and beyond. 

While the shift towards environmental sustainability is a worthy pursuit no matter the industry, the trend towards adopting new technologies that provide more sustainability and eco-friendliness can have some unintended consequences on the realm of cybersecurity. 

Today we can see many hybrid endeavors that combine both cutting-edge technology and green, eco-friendly initiatives to create long-term ecologically sustainable solutions for businesses in all fields. But since these collaborations tend to utilize new technology, they may not provide the kind of advanced-level cybersecurity protocols needed to secure these endeavors against cyberattacks, resulting in unintended consequences: an increase in cyber vulnerabilities. 

In this article, we will take an in-depth look at the enhanced cybersecurity risks presented by certain sustainability and tech initiatives. Then we will explore best practices intended to keep businesses cyber secure as they transition to new, more environmentally friendly modes of operation and production. 

1. The unexpected cybersecurity risks of going green

While new green technology rollouts provide highly visible, obvious benefits, contributing to the important global cause of sustainability, the cybersecurity underpinnings that run in the background are easy to ignore but no less significant. There is a subtle interdependence between new green tech and expanded cybersecurity risks.

2. New developments in green technology

New developments in green technology are vast and wide-ranging, offering revolutionary potential to cut down on harmful greenhouse gas emissions. By some estimates, Green IT can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by ten times more than it emits. Green coding focuses on creating more energy efficient modes of engaging computational power that can be applied to everything from virtual reality gaming devices in development to cloud computing. 

Sustainable data collection centers aim to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions by finding alternative methods of collecting data that require less energy. 

Smart city technology, such as IoT-enabled power grids, smart parking meters, and smart traffic controls, can utilize predictive capabilities to ensure that urban infrastructures are running at optimal energy levels, reducing resource and energy waste and improving city living experiences. Similarly, smart HVAC systems can respond to global climate change issues by managing the internal temperature of buildings using smart regulators that reduce energy waste and carbon emissions, while still heating or cooling buildings. 

All of these innovations are building towards a more sustainable future by reducing our need for harmful fossil fuel consumption, managing power usage across the energy grid, and creating more sustainable alternatives to existing technologies for transportation, waste management, entertainment, and more. But each of these new technologies also presents a broader risk level that could threaten the foundations of urban cores. 

3. New green tech risks

One of the main risks introduced by all of this new sustainable technology is the expanded attack surface. Sustainable smart city adjustments, for example, operate within broad networks of interconnected devices. Each individual device can communicate and receive data from other devices, but individual devices are often poorly protected. 

So bad actors may be able to access sensitive data or broader urban infrastructure network systems by infiltrating one poorly protected device. IoT networks rely on a combination of hardware, software, third-party developments, and urban networks to run smoothly- a complex combination that is hard to regulate, protect, and control. This is especially true as older, poorly protected gadgets communicate with the latest high-tech citywide smart systems, creating inherent security vulnerability weak spots that can be easily exploited by bad actors.  

In the energy field, meanwhile, interconnected power systems using new sources of power, such as wind, solar, and energy efficient battery power, run through software-optimized systems that provide an efficient mode of distributing energy and conducting system-wide changes. But in the wrong hands, this consolidated ease of access could lead to widespread damages, with the centralized sustainable power controls becoming weapons of manipulation and chaos. 

Social engineering attacks can also have serious effects on complex interdependent urban systems, as phishing attacks can provide access to restricted systems, networks, or other sensitive data. Successful social engineering attacks provide opportunities for exploitation and manipulation of citywide systems through the installation of malware, spyware, and ransomware. Humans are susceptible to simple errors, and a convincing phishing attack can lead to immediate consequences, such as cutting off access to power throughout the region, rerouting transportation lines or traffic lights, disabling smart security systems, or other actions that can have broad damaging effects across a huge area. 

4. Green cyber-attacks

According to Reuters, E.ON, Europe’s largest energy grip operating company, has observed a significant spike in cyber-attacks in recent years, as has Norwegian clean energy company Hydro. Because the clean energy world is more decentralized, it presents more opportunity for cyber attackers to target small energy or communications hubs.

In Ukraine, for example, Russian operatives enacted cyberattacks on the Ukrainian satellite communication network, resulting in the remote shutdown of security monitors at German wind energy company Enercon. The attack shut down over 5,800 wind turbines at the German company, revealing high stakes vulnerabilities intrinsic to new Green technologies. 

5. Best practices to remain cyber-secure as you go green

Becoming aware of the enhanced risk potential of green technology is key to developing appropriate security measures that can mitigate risks and protect sensitive networks and data. Companies can provide necessary security by deploying advanced level security measures, monitoring risk factors, and enabling comprehensive threat response and prevention plans to proactively deal with the impact of impending cyberattacks- and prevent widespread damages. 

6. Deploy high tech security solutions

One of the key features of every new technology should be creating a resilient infrastructure through a combined protective plan that includes threat detection, incident response protocols, and proactive data protection. For new green tech developments, organizations will need to provide comprehensive security that can block against phishing, unauthorized network access, ransomware, spyware, malware, denial-of-service attacks, and a host of other cyberattack methodologies. 

Implementing zero-trust security regulations is a good strategy for preventing unauthorized log-ins across the board, and this security method can be applied to all devices and networks within an interconnected system. Zero-trust security is more secure than multi-factor authentication since it assumes that every log-in attempt is unauthorized until proven otherwise. This makes it an effective strategy for external attack surface management, or the mitigation of risks and vulnerabilities that are associated with an organizations’ external facing assets, such as its network infrastructure or website. 

In addition, AI and machine learning-enabled security systems, such as cloud-based SIEM systems, draw from a comprehensive knowledge base of collaborative input to provide enhanced cybersecurity coverage across devices and network systems. Cloud-based SIEM systems continuously monitor user behavior, seeking out any unusual, potentially suspicious activity, and can therefore detect anomalous behaviors that might slip through the notice of other security protections. 

7. Follow national security regulations

Compliance with national cybersecurity standards and rules is another significant step towards ensuring that new green technology has sufficient base-level protective measures in place. In order to remain compliant with national security regulations, organizations have to assess their own security gaps and vulnerabilities, providing security patches and proof of regular security updates. 

Additional regulatory compliance requirements include encryption of sensitive data, which can prevent unwanted access to sensitive data, and comprehensive cybersecurity incident response plans which are necessary for mitigating the damages of any successful cyber-attacks. General employee and staff cybersecurity training also keeps organizations compliant with government regulations- and ensures that employees are aware of the risks and signs of phishing and social engineering cyber-attack attempts. 

8. Continuously monitor the dark web

Using dark web monitoring tools to continuously monitor the dark web can be a powerful strategy for identifying likely threats, bad actors, and hacking plots. In terms of cybersecurity management and upkeep, monitoring the dark web provides insight into whether or not an organization has already, unknowingly, been the victim of a cyberattack in which their sensitive data is already being leaked on the dark web. 

When sensitive information such as employee addresses or client financial details are floating around on the dark web, it is clear that there has been a serious security breach enacted on an organization. So consistent monitoring can go a long way towards mitigating the damages of successful cyberattacks. 

9. Final thoughts

Climate resilience and cyber resilience need to be inextricably linked going forward if we are to create a truly sustainable, interconnected world. Sustainability initiatives that utilize the latest and greatest in new technology need to include abundant provisions for cybersecurity, regarding cybersecurity with equal significance as the environmental impact of the technology itself. 

Measures like managing external attack surfaces, ensuring that devices and systems are code compliant with national security regulations, enacting high tech cybersecurity protective measures, and consistently monitoring the dark web can help reduce the impact and risk of cyberattacks on all sustainable tech devices and systems. With ample protections in place, developers can continue to roll out new green technologies that will provide radical solutions for making a more sustainable world.

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