UK: The Future Is Digital - Exploring The Options For The 21st Century North Sea

Last Updated: 14 May 2007
Article by Deloitte Energy & Resources Group

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

"Our oil and gas group includes experienced security and privacy practitioners from around the world that work specifically with clients in the oil and gas industry and provide a comprehensive range of information security and technology risk management consultancy services."

A changing world

Information Technology (IT) has always been a key component of the upstream oil and gas business, however, the upstream oil and gas industry is under continuing pressure to reduce costs, increase productivity and ensure efficient use of resources, particularly skilled human resources. To this end, companies have been focusing on core business activities, developing production capacity to match demand and using technology as a business enabler. There are therefore clear business drivers for better utilising IT to provide accurate and real time reporting, system monitoring, audio and video collaboration tools and more reliable and safer operational systems in their upstream businesses.

As the oil industry becomes more reliant on technology to support key operations on the Digital Oil Field, there is a critical need to maintain a safe, robust and secure environment. With increased threats from unstable geopolitics, terrorism and environmentalism through to hackers, viruses and worms, the industry recognises that something proactive must be done to manage risks associated with confidentiality, integrity and availability of information systems, which are increasingly at the heart of their business.

Deloitte has found that when asked what critical technology assets an oil and gas company has, many respond by giving high priority to their process control systems. The reason for this is that the impact, if such systems are compromised, are significant as they may lead to loss of production and producing assets, reputational damage, financial loss, and may result in injury or loss of life. This is both true of the Exploration and Production (E&P) part of the industry and the downstream sector.

Process control systems support the backbone of the industry’s upstream and downstream business. Upstream, these systems are used to extract oil and gas from reservoirs and move it via pipelines to destinations around the world; downstream they ensure the maintenance of a constant temperature and tank pressures in refineries, and ensure that safe levels of chemical constituents are maintained in storage tanks. Like other control systems in the world of IT, these systems can be configured and fine-tuned to address acceptable thresholds set by engineers and administrators. Offshore and onshore sites may have hundreds of systems spread around various installations. There are increasing requirements to access these systems remotely to react to staff shortages and support a need to move people out of harm’s way and into a safer environment.

This publication explores industry challenges for providing robust, safe and secure remote access to critical components that support the Digital Oil Field.

The challenges

User access challenges to components of the Digital Oil Field:

The need to provide authorised employees and business partners with access to information virtually anytime, anywhere and from any place is becoming particularly relevant to the security of the Digital Oil Field. A complex business environment exists where competitors share technology to spread costs and third party providers support and maintain the underlying network infrastructure.

Digital Oil Field users require access to technology assets, both within the field, and corporate systems in order manage and monitor control systems, provide real time reporting and historical analysis, and to apply knowledge received from geo-seismic investigations. We understand the variety of challenges that need to be overcome to allow these business models to work in safe and secure ways. Considerations may include the integrity of data being transported; ability of technology to resist unauthorised attacks with potentially hostile intent; and the identification of valid users accessing digital systems.

Protecting core components of the Digital Oil Field:

Historically, the industry has been using legacy applications and technology on offshore platforms based on older but proven technologies. While these systems were self contained, used proprietary technology and connected only locally within a site, their risks to exposure were limited. However, as connectivity increases between the upstream and downstream businesses, third parties and the corporate network, the opportunity for wider exposure increases. The industry relies on third party suppliers for network connectivity and remote support which is often provided over semi-public networks that are potentially accessible to a wider range of users. To complicate matters, several safety control systems (used to add safety measures to process control systems) are moving in the same direction and may also be potentially vulnerable to similar threats in the future.

Organisations face risks when upgrading these systems using traditional methods because patches are often not certified by major vendors within the timeframes required. As a result, proactive system upgrades for security reasons could lead to warranties from suppliers and equipment providers being invalidated or compromised. Additionally, upgrades to older technology may only be possible once offshore or onshore sites are shutdown for general maintenance. Such events do not happen frequently due to operational constraints such as cost and production loss resulting in systems being exposed to vulnerabilities for longer periods of time.

From a technology deployment perspective, the challenge to the industry is therefore two-fold:

  • To manage risks associated with older systems that are deployed on existing sites and may be difficult to upgrade (due to the low likelihood of events occurring), there is a resistance to change legacy systems, despite the potential impact if known weaknesses are exploited.
  • To ensure that newer systems being designed and implemented have appropriate protection in place to reduce ever expanding risk profiles. This includes resistance to common security threats; adequate separation from potentially hostile environments (such as the internet and corporate network); better ways of identifying valid system users and more efficient monitoring systems.

Providing remote and wireless access to the Digital Oil Field:

With increased resource and costs constraints, as well as the need to scale the management of operations, oil and gas companies are increasingly making use of remote access technology wherever possible to support their onshore and offshore platforms. The need to connect offshore platforms to onshore bases will drive requirements for different forms of connectivity which may include combinations of wireless and mobile networking, and satellite communications.

Such technology could provide useful solutions such as remote wireless sensors that can be placed temporarily in various locations along the oil field to monitor temperature and pressure changes. Additionally, remote access capability combined with knowledge management systems and audio-visual tools can help to establish centres of expertise that enable the industry to monitor and control a larger number of systems on offshore platforms in safer and more practical living conditions. These centres would make use of a centralised pool of experienced engineers and technicians that could monitor multiple platforms across an organisation’s estate.

Solutions already exist to allow people to operate equipment on an offshore platform remotely, eg, from the mainland. Minimising the need for people on-platform can not only save costs, but can also improve quality of life and safety; however, it comes with a potentially high security threat. In an extreme case such access could, in the wrong hands, give someone the ability to control platform equipment remotely and cause a major service failure or other incident.

With the advent of wireless technology and pervasiveness of the IP network, newer systems are becoming more tightly interconnected with the rest of the corporate network. Systems are maturing from proprietary closed systems to open systems that can be found in typical office environments. They are also making use of web services for configuration and monitoring and offer remote and potentially wireless interfaces for improved user experience and wider connectivity. These systems rely on internet protocols instead of proprietary communication channels which can be subverted using well known attacks if not implemented correctly. All of these aspects introduce a more increased level of security threat than before.

Technology options today are abundant and provide wireless access, faster network communications, larger processing power, smaller robust computing platforms and increased storage capacity to meet business requirements. These solutions make it easier to keep track of assets and support key business processes throughout the supply chain from upstream exploration and production systems to downstream applications in retail and marketing. They also enable quicker management decisions based on real-time data and provide the opportunity to influence changes to traditional business processes, the way people work and the environment they work within.

With this abundance comes an increased dependency on technology to be safe, reliable, and secure. Although the software driving IT is maturing, security weaknesses still continue to pose a threat to the reliability of underlying solutions. Such weaknesses may be used as avenues for potential attack by those who wish to disrupt operations for financial or political gain. As the threat profile for terrorism continues to increase, there is a real concern that technology systems supporting the oil and gas industry may become future targets.

A safer approach

To address the challenges presented above, an oil and gas company looking to safeguard their IT assets therefore needs a comprehensive and robust approach to security governance and risk management, encompassing a clear understanding of the potential business impacts, threats and vulnerabilities facing it.

For future protection of the Digital Oil Field, organisations in industry need to segregate access to their corporate networks and applications from their process control systems. Furthermore, they need to mature security processes such as system hardening, software patching, antivirus protection, incidence response, intrusion monitoring, detection and prevention. They need to implement and enforce a security policy that restricts "who" is permitted to access "which" business systems within the corporate environment, and "which" control systems in the field. These goals need to be balanced with the need to monitor and control systems to maintain platforms, and also to share data with other parties, who are often also competitors. Being able to identify what users belong to which organisation, what technology systems and data they are allowed to access, and under what conditions therefore becomes critical. The industry needs a way to manage the variety of identities that may play a role in the Digital Oil Field without exposing themselves to the risks associated with providing such access. Monitoring and access management solutions are maturing to address this need and some organisations are exploring federated identity systems to manage risk and scale user administration of identities in the future.

Finally, organisations that recognise the risks to their systems must develop an ongoing process for assessing the security of these core systems and a way of testing the effectiveness of controls.


The greater use of technology will make it easier and safer to support the Digital Oil Field of the future. However, along with this ease of use comes additional risks which will need to be correctly managed in order to maintain integrity, safety and reliability objectives, and reduce business exposure.

The industry needs to be aware of increasing threats to its information and IT assets. Organisations within the industry should establish effective and focused risk management programmes. Moreover, they should take the necessary actions to raise awareness of the risks involved and provide solutions to manage these risks in a cost effective manner with minimal impact to operational systems.

Why Deloitte?

Our oil and gas group includes experienced security and privacy practitioners from around the world that work specifically with clients in the oil and gas industry and provide a comprehensive range of information security and technology risk management consultancy services.

Deloitte have developed a PCN specific security testing methodology to test multivendor process control equipment on client sites. Our team are experienced in analysing process control systems and supporting operational processes against generally accepted information security and industry specific practices and control requirements. We work with on-site managers and engineers to agree practical steps to address the control weakness identified. Our conservative approach to testing helps to ensure that the impact on client operating environments is kept to a minimum and that all safeguarding measures remain effective during our engagements.

Deloitte also have experience assisting our clients establish risk management programmes to effectively manage the security challenges described in this publication. These programmes consist of a strategy and implementation plan for assessing the state of security across the organisation. Our programmes also include the use of appropriate tools and processes for benchmarking organisational groups against industry practices and our clients’ own security standards. Where gaps are identified, we provide detailed recommendations and can assist in the design, implementation and further testing of remediation activities such as improved security controls and processes.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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