Cyberattacks against industrial targets doubled last year as hackers made increasing use of encryption to hide themselves, according to data from the computer manufacturer Dell.
Analysis from the firm’s intelligence network showed an 100% increase in attacks against supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, which are used to monitor and control industrial processes.
Florian Malecki, product marketing director of network security at Dell, said: "We have got all these benefits from the internet, but from a cyber-war point of view what does that really mean?
"Rather than attack a nation with bombs or planes all future terrorists could soon hack into the network from where all our cars are being driven."
Attacks on industrial systems can cause graver damage than traditional hacking, disrupting manufacturing processes or even disabling critical infrastructure.
Such assaults have previously been the exclusive domain of governments because of the resources needed, with the most famous example being the use of the Stuxnet virus to damage Iranian nuclear centrifuges at the end of 2009, in an attack thought to have been backed by the US and Israel.
Of the attacks against Scada that Dell saw most were said to have been against Finland, the UK and the US, most likely because the technology is commonly used in those countries, with the systems often connected to the internet.
"Since companies are only required to report data breaches that involve personal or payment information, Scada attacks often go unreported," said Patrick Sweeney, executive director, Dell Security.
"This lack of information sharing combined with an aging industrial machinery infrastructure presents huge security challenges that will to continue to grow in the coming months and years."
The analysis comes in the wake of an attack on the French broadcaster TV5 Monde by terrorists associated with Islamic State, which included the unprecedented takedown of the network’s television channel.
Speaking about the attack, Malecki said: "What’s become more challenging is the level of knowledge: hackers are getting better and better. They also do their homework, so rather than target a large group of people, some are becoming more specific."
Other trends reported by Dell include a rise in point-of-sales malware and attacks on payment infrastructure, attacks which have led to some of the highest profile cyber-breaches in history, including those involving US retailers Target and Home Depot.
The firm also confirmed previous that widespread encryption has been taken up by hackers to protect themselves as they carried out the attacks, a trend that police forces around the world have warned against.
Dell found that the volume of secure HTTPS connections to the web had doubled between the start of 2014 and 2015.