Saudi Arabia has been hit by a massive “digital bomb” that may have originated in Iran. Bloomberg has the story:
State-sponsored hackers have conducted a series of destructive attacks on Saudi Arabia over the last two weeks, erasing data and wreaking havoc in the computer banks of the agency running the country’s airports and hitting five additional targets, according to two people familiar with an investigation into the breach. […]
Although a probe by Saudi authorities is still in its early stages, the people said digital evidence suggests the attacks emanated from Iran. That could present President-elect Donald Trump with a major national security challenge as he steps into the Oval Office.
The use of offensive cyber weapons by a nation is relatively rare and the scale of the latest attacks could trigger a tit-for-tat cyber war in a region where capabilities have mushroomed ever since an attack on Saudi Aramco in 2012.
Destructive cyber attacks are becoming an almost daily news item; just two days ago, we wrote of a troubling ransomware attack on San Francisco’s light rail system. But the Saudi Arabia attack is a beast of a different nature that could bring serious geopolitical consequences.
If the culprit is Iran, Saudi Arabia will surely seek to retaliate. This would hardly be the first time that Iran has engaged in cyberwar against the Saudis (the 2012 attack on Aramco was carried out with the exact same malware), but this multi-target attack was particularly malicious. Tehran and Riyadh are geopolitical rivals whose proxies are already fighting each other throughout the Middle East; now it seems that cyberspace is becoming a growing conflict zone for the two powers. Proof of Tehran’s involvement could also create pressure for a tougher U.S. stance on Iran, especially as the incoming Trump administration mulls its options on the controversial nuclear deal.
Before jumping to conclusions, we should note that there is no official confirmation of Iran’s involvement yet; proper attribution of cyber attacks is notoriously difficult. Yet that very ambiguity about who is attacking whom is one reason that cyber warfare is so dangerous. If states can use cyber attacks to inflict massive damage on their enemies while maintaining plausible deniability, the use of such tactics will only grow.
Further information on the attack’s origins should come to light in the coming days, so speculation may be premature. Regardless, the attack on Saudi Arabia offers a glimpse into the future that awaits us. Cyber warfare threatens to usher in a world of even greater strategic uncertainty, where dangerous attacks will proliferate but attribution is by no means clear. Reckoning with this brave new world and crafting a coherent cyber strategy should be a top priority for the next U.S. administration.