Cyber security: who’s keeping an eye on your database?

The hackers are coming for you, and your rivals may not be far behind them, says Steve Race.

The internet relentlessly continues to explode in terms of its uses and the people and devices harnessed to it. New phrases such as the Internet of Things, smart cities, superintelligence, and Digital Built Britain are making their presence felt – and their implications become even more far-reaching. Information about building projects, infrastructure and the products they contain can now travel the internet at enormous speed, live on the cloud and cross numerous legal jurisdictions.

Nowadays for example, innocent controls on building management systems (BMS) have an IP address which means they can be uniquely identified, contacted and manipulated. The intention is good, the product provider promotes the idea of being able to monitor the equipment and inform the client if there is a malfunction or the component needs maintenance or replacement. The darker side is that hackers could compromise equipment, with serious consequences in, say, prisons, hospitals, water networks and sensitive installations – anywhere from simple malfunction to death.

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The downside of clouds, common data environments (CDEs), collaborative portals and project servers is that they are extremely vulnerable to compromise by hostile agencies such as hackers, or in future by competitors or large organisations observing what we do to gain competitive advantage.

One illustration of the industry’s current understanding of the situation is found in clause 4.3 of the Architects Code of Conduct (a breach of which could lead to an architect being removed or suspended from the architectural register by the Architects Registration Board).The code says: “You should ensure that adequate security is in place to safeguard both paper and electronic records for your clients, taking full account of data protection legislation, and that clients’ confidential information is safeguarded.”

This statement reflects:

  • A lack of understanding of the range “electronic records” implies these days;
  • The responsibility placed on individuals and organisations, especially the information manager in a BIM environment;
  • Implications for procurement documentation, legal arrangements and insurance protection;
  • By extension, the wisdom that the technology and construction courts will have to bring to a new class of litigation.

If there were to be litigation over the safeguard of electronic records, the courts would be guided by that time-honoured concept of “what would the reasonable person do?”. Currently the answer might be: have anti-virus and firewall software are in place; take frequent backups, some of which are kept elsewhere; change passwords regularly; ban unauthorised hardware such as memory sticks, and so on. A company taking these steps would probably pass the “reasonableness” test, and a negligent action might be avoided.

But there are two other factors to be taken into account. First, although negligence is avoided, other forms of commercial dispute might not be and a project database being compromised could have serious consequences for all.

Second, the protective measures we use are not even exercises one and two for even the most mediocre hackers. Despite the reassurances of the companies that host databases – and bearing in mind the casual use of Dropbox or Google Docs as workarounds – the only real security you have is that nobody has bothered to attack you.

No case law at the moment deals with the consequences of cyber issues in construction. But when cases do reach the courts, a serious question arises as to which legal jurisdiction might apply. Server farms supporting the cloud or industry portals could be anywhere in the world.

Any data we send via the internet, even to the person next to us, might travel via several legal jurisdictions. Global governance of the internet and the physical/logical location of possible legal action on hacking is a serious issue whose development is still embryonic.

The ever-burgeoning pool of hacking expertise will percolate into the construction industry in the very near future. Perhaps it will manifest itself when large companies employ resilience engineers who will ostensibly protect common data environments but to protect there has to be an understanding of the attack.

The major anti-virus software companies observe a million or so new malicious forms of software each month, many innocuous, a small minority dangerous. It will be too tempting for some of the larger organisations in construction to adapt cyber resilience techniques, under the auspices of laudable motives, to observe what others are doing.

All parties to a project – including the current fashionable role of the BIM information manager – should be more vigilant about the responsibilities and liabilities they agree to on any project. Cyber security has to be acknowledged immediately and should be higher on the agendas of the professional institutions, the educational curriculum, procurement documentation and legal jurisprudence. In the present BIM context the subject adds an order of magnitude of content to the Employers’ Information Requirements and BIM Execution Plans.

Independent BIM consultant Steve Race is also a principal lecturer on the MSc BIM course at Middlesex University

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