The threat of cyber espionage goes above and beyond endangering some of the world's largest oil and gas companies, industry experts warned on Wednesday, saying "entire countries" are being targeted.
It comes at a time when major corporations are ratcheting up internal security measures to better protect themselves from cyberattacks, following a spate of high-profile data breaches in recent months.
Speaking at the ADIPEC oil summit in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, Wael Fattouh, a Saudi-based PwC partner specializing in technology risk assurance, said: "At some point (hackers) were after a quick buck, just wanting to make some money and steal a few identities."
"But now you have teams of people dedicated to coming up with creative ways of shutting down entire countries – not just companies."
On Monday, researchers at the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that executives in Europe and advanced economies had named cyberattacks as the leading risk to business.
The WEF's latest study also revealed that worries about technological risks were becoming increasingly common among chief executives.
"What we have found is that the industrial cyberthreat is a big problem. More of a concern for oil and gas professionals than on the Information Technology (IT) side," Leo Simonovich, global head of cybersecurity at Europe's biggest electronics business Siemens, said on Wednesday.
"And it is not just the frequency of these major attacks, it is the potency of them that is a concern," Simonovich added.
The rising prominence of cyberattacks inspired France and U.S. technology giants – including Microsoft – to team up and formally tackle internet ills.
The new initiative, announced Monday and entitled the 'Paris call for trust and security in cyberspace,' hopes to revive efforts to regulate the industry after a round of United Nations negotiations failed last year.
French officials said they wanted U.S. tech behemoths, such as Facebook and Alphabet's Google, to sign up to the initiative. In doing so, they hoped this would inspire other businesses to do the same.
Despite a recent flurry of cyberattacks, Patrick Sjoestedt, executive business leader for manufacturing and resources at Microsoft, said Wednesday: "I am obviously a cyber optimist, but I think it is important to have a healthy pragmatic attitude."
When asked for specific examples of cyber threats concening energy companies at the same industry event in Abu Dhabi, Jan Leitermann, chief information officer at Austrian oil and gas group OMV, replied: "If I knew, then this would clearly be helpful for our strategy."
"Attacks to physical assets are the most interesting prospect from my perspective and these are really of interest for espionage too."