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Iran and U.S. in Undeclared State of War

A few weeks back, we highlighted the story that Iran was emerging as a viable cyber-threat. What wasn’t clear at the time was the extent to which the Iranian government was directly behind the attacks. Today, the Wall Street Journal reports, all doubts can be cast aside:

The hackers appear to be a network of fewer than 100 Iranian computer-security specialists at universities and network security companies in Iran, investigators said.

Iranian officials didn’t return a call seeking comment.

U.S. officials said detailed evidence linking the attacks to Tehran is classified. But Iranian hackers don’t have the resources to mount major attacks without the support and technical expertise of the government, the officials said.

“These are not ordinary Iranians,” one senior U.S. official said.

The U.S. and Iran are in an undeclared but very real state of war. As Secretary Panetta said Thursday, cyber-threats are no less real than any other national security threat, with both our financial and physical infrastructure being particularly ripe and juicy targets. Both sides are trying to do real damage to the other—the U.S. cyber efforts are being aimed mainly at the Iranian nuclear program, while Iran is attacking the U.S. economy, presumably in retaliation both for the nuclear program cyber attacks and for the crippling sanctions currently plaguing Tehran.

And this is only early skirmishing. While these attacks have so far been fairly low grade—Denial of Service attacks have been the tool of choice of pimple-faced hackers living in their parents’ basement for years now—more sophisticated attacks, like the one against Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil company, point to Iran having developed a much deeper and dangerous capability.

These modern wars are poised to become an unavoidable fact of life for Americans far removed from any physical battlefield. In cyberwar, the already attenuated distinction between civilian and military targets largely disappears; we have to look forward to a not-too-distant day when hackers could bring down the power supply or the transit system of a large city. Clearly the United States will have to build both its defensive and offensive capabilities in this arena. Clearly, too, private companies and local and state governments have a lot to think about.

The 21st century is getting more interesting week by week.

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