The relationship between the United States and Iran has perhaps reached a very low levein in recent weeks, following the 1979 Khomenist Revolution and the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran by Iranian students.
According to American sources, on 20th June the United States launched offensive cyber-operations against Iranian intelligence computer systems, the same day that the US President, Donald J. Trump, had before ordered a military attack and then revoked the order before it actually left.
The United States Cyber Command – a department recently promoted by Trump as a unified combat command under the direction of the Department of Defense – allegedly attacked the computer systems used to control missile and rocket launches.
Such a cyberattack would have been the White House‘s response to the actions of the Iranian authorities who, the day before, had shot down an American spy drone – a Global Hawk produced by Northrop Grumman – as it was guilty of violating the airspace of the Islamic Republic.
After accusations and threats to each other, the US President decided to impose new sanctions on Iran and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That was not welcomed by the Government of Tehran, which spoke, earlier, of “end of diplomatic path with the United States” and announced that it had exceeded the uranium enrichment limit imposed by the JCPOA – Joint Comprehensive Plan of Iran Nuclear Deal – from which the United States unilaterally exited in May 2018.
It remains to be seen, therefore, after the escalation of the last few weeks, whether the United States will try to make more and more use of cyber-attacks to solve the delicate international issues, primarily the Iranian one.
After the cyber-space was recognized as a strategic domain by NATO in 2016, on par with land, water, sky and space, it has been increasingly seen that countries use this domain to plead their own interests and also to carry out operations – this new type of military activity should not come as a surprise, because you only have to look at the National Cyber Strategy, published in September 2019 by the US, which shows that there has been a paradigm shift from what was the protection of American interests in the cyber space, moving from a more classical deterrence to the purpose of defence to a more offensive deterrence.
The fact that this document was only published last September suggests that the field of cybersecurity is fundamentally new and still to be explored.
On the one hand, cybernetic space is a totally man-made space and where you can have very high levels of ambiguity, through non-identification strategies from where attacks start, on the other hand, it is one of the most unregulated space at the level of behaviour that all countries shoud adopt with the specifice the responsibilities in cyber-operations.
This is a field in which the international law must be adapted as it is vital to understand how international law applies to the cyber-space and to see how it can be applied in practice: there is a long-time discussion between experts in the United Nations about cyber-space and, moreover, you can conduct operations that may fall into the category of attacks that are below the threshold of the use of force. So, it is still unclear whether a cyber-attack can be responded to with a classic attack byusing any classic military tools.
That is why American cybersecurity policy has changed in recent years, starting with the different pillars on which the National Cyber Strategy is based:
1) defending the homeland by protecting networks, systems, functions and data;promote American prosperity by fostering a secure digital economy and promoting strong domestic innovation;
2) preserving peace and security by strengthening the ability of the United States – along with allies and partners – to deter and, if necessary, punish those who use cyber-tools for malicious purposes;
3) expansion of American influence abroad to extend the key principles of an open, reliable and secure Internet.
Within the cyber-space, the United States have adopted a so-called “continuous engagement” – an ongoing commitment to counter possible threats even before they can materialize through targeted attacks, with the transition from a defensive to an offensive approach, with the American presence in the cyber-space that will more and more increas in order to actively dissuade potential enemies.
Historically, the United States are not new to carrying out cyber-attacks on Iran, in fact, as early as 2010, the United States and Israel are believed to have spread a virus, created by the US Government, to slow down the process of enriching uranium in Iran’s nuclear power plants.
That cyber-attack of the United States against the Iranian intelligence unit is part of a context that has seen Washington’s intensifying cyber-operations also against Russia and Iran – it is important to be aware of the cybersecurity space for their own interests and that they have had a particularly aggressive posture in this area.
The United States and Iran are two of the world’s most advanced, active and capable hacking powers at a time when governments regularly use cyber-attacks to achieve important goals and shape geopolitics.
Tensions between the two countries and their allies have produced a long history of extraordinary cyber-attacks in addition to traditional kinetic warfare – for these reasons, Iran’s revenge for the killing of General Qassim Suleimani could also be served on the ground of cyber-war.
Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency – CISA – of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, warned the entire community to re-investigate Tehran’s tactics, procedures and techniques in detail in cyberspace, after reporting the increase in the activity of malicious cyber-attacks directed against the American companies and government agencies.
The hackers of the Iranian regime have increasingly used destructive windshield wipers in order to spear phishing, email scam to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data – it is a hackerial attempt to decode a common user password across multiple accounts before switching to a second password that allows you to circumvent account lockouts.
This is an attack that leverages the likelihood that people can use the same username and password to access multiple applications, sites, and services – in fact, cyber-criminals are able to get the details of stolen accounts from a platform and implement the bots needed to log into many other accounts with the same credentials.
Once they have found a way to log in, the criminals will break the account by making fraudulent purchases or stealing confidential information – before the 2015 nuclear deal was negotiated between the United States, Iran, Europe, Russia and China, Iranian hackers regularly targeted American financial companies and critical infrastructure.
Over the past year, Iran and the United States have repeatedly targeted each other in hacking operations – Iranian government hackers have attempted to breach President Trump’s re-election campaign: in fact the U.S. Cyber Command reportedly warned against Iran’s paramilitary force attacks during a period of high tensions, earlier this year.
More than 150 American sites have already been victims of defacement by Iranian hackers also because of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had promised “a strong vengeance” for Suleimani’s killing – this is a modern conflict, to date not only threatened but it is a long-time a cyber war – in recent days, hackers of Tehran have hacked the website of the Federal Depository Library Program – FDLP – with a defacement operation, leaving a message stating that “this is only a small part of Iran’s cyber-capabilities.”
The attack targeted a “weak” target, but it is a sign that the Islamic Republic’s cyber-army has been activated to strike US-linked targets, any critical infrastructure in particular..
The U.S. cyber-army believe, in fact, that the attacks could take place in five ways:
– DDoS attacks, in which you flood a site with access requests and crash it.
– data deletion (or wiper attack), actions to delete data in infected databases.
– attacks on industrial control systems, information-related operations and as well as cyber espionage.
The latter two to steal data for use then in physical, military actions – for example, by committing targeted murders or attacks on infrastructure.
But the Islamic Republic could suffer from the American reaction far more damage than it could cause: it has already happened in the past, as confirmed by the head of the “cyber police” in Tehran, General Kamal Hadianfar, who admitted that Iran in 2017 suffered 296 serious cyber-attacks against paramount infrastructures and on several occasions some experts in the field were mysteriously dead.
In conclusion, after sanctions and threats on both sides, could we really lead to an escalation of cyber-attacks and, because of that, does it seem to be a new Cold War ?