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Cyber Insecurity
Saudi Arabia Hit By Digital Bomb

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.

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  • Andrew Allison

    For crying out loud! Why would a cyber-war between Iran and Saudi Arabia “present President-elect Donald Trump with a major national security challenge as he steps into the Oval Office.” Bloomberg has become as pathetically partisan as the MSM.

    • FriendlyGoat

      The national security crisis is that we have the same vulnerabilities, preventable (we think) mostly by nuclear weapons we cannot use against racks of computers.

      • CapitalHawk

        Why not preventable with a series of assassinations of the people perpetrating the attacks. And by that I mean not the political leaders, but the actual computer programmers. They are probably very soft targets, hard to replace and limited in quantity. A perfect target and perfectly appropriate to target if they have launched an attack on your country.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Much more to the point, the miscreants who participate in such activities have families, friends, etc. I believe that a ‘Kaiser Soze’ approach might be most efficacious….

          • CapitalHawk

            Probably even more effective in MENA that in the US, given the highly tribal nature of that area.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Absolutely. The Israelis pioneered this approach with the ‘middlemen’ supporting the various intifadas and other terrorism waves, and the effect has been entirely suitable.

  • JR

    This is where Israeli cyber securities experts need to show why they are the best in the world. Time to earn some browny points with the Sunnis and do the job of helping those who hate us. The parallel between the current situation and the one described in the Bible with Yosef is not lost on me.

    • Fat_Man

      Make the Saudis pay retail for the help.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Of course, that is what we do to the goyim!

  • Everyone attacks everyone in the Middle East, it seems in the cyber world as well nowadays.

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