News / Middle East

Saudi Cyber Attack Seen as Work of Amateur Hackers Backed by Iran

Digital security experts say a major August cyber-attack at Saudi Arabia's top oil company appears to be the work of amateur hackers working on behalf of a nation state, and several signs point to Iran as their sponsor.

The experts say the methods apparently used by the hackers to damage many of Saudi Aramco's computers pose new challenges to other companies based in the region, and to Western powers engaged in cyber warfare with Iran.

Several hacker groups quickly claimed responsibility for the August 15 attack on Aramco, but their identities have remained a mystery and their online claims have not been verified.

Iran Accused as Cyber Attacker

The New York Times  reported Tuesday that unnamed U.S. intelligence officials believe the attack's real perpetrator was Iran. But it said the officials offered no specific evidence to support their claim.

Earlier this month, Iran's National Center of Cyberspace dismissed the U.S. allegation as politically motivated. Saudi Aramco has not commented on the perpetrators of the cyber-attack, citing an ongoing investigation.

Seculert, an Israel-based security company specializing in advanced threat detection, said the Aramco hackers may be affiliated with a government because the virus they deployed was designed to do more than just destroy hard drives.

Spying for a Government?

Seculert chief technology officer Aviv Raff said the affected computers sent data to a machine outside of the corporate network just before their hard drives were erased by the virus, dubbed "Shamoon" by researchers.

"With Shamoon, [the hackers] basically [were] trying to erase evidence of other intentions, trying to cover their tracks," said Raff.

He said those intentions may have included spying on Saudi Aramco for a government interested in the Saudi state-owned company's major energy infrastructure.

Jeffrey Carr, chief executive officer of U.S. security firm Taia Global, said Shamoon appears to have been reverse-engineered from a sophisticated data-stealing virus that attacked Iranian oil ministry computers in April.

Amateur Results

But Carr, whose firm specializes in protecting data from espionage, said Shamoon failed to accomplish its data-stealing objectives.

"The malware had some very basic coding errors in it," he said. "[It looks like] somebody in their basement doing some coding and reverse-engineering and then sending it out. It is unlikely that this was done by a professional team."

Carr said several factors indicate that the Aramco hackers were working for the Iranian government. He said Iran had a motive to hire them.

Circumstantial Evidence

Tehran urged Riyadh in July not to boost Saudi oil exports while Iranian production was being cut back because of Western sanctions.

"Iran wanted the West to feel the pressure [from a lower global oil supply and higher prices]," Carr said. "Of course, Aramco did [raise production]. So for me, [the virus] would be a standard shot across the bow by Iran, saying we warned you."

Iran appears to have hacker groups capable of staging major cyber-attacks without exposing the government as the responsible party.

A group calling itself the Iranian Cyber Army hijacked the home page of Baidu, China's largest search engine, in January 2010, leaving a message in Farsi saying the act was a protest against foreign meddling in Iran's domestic politics.

Iran also has a record of reverse-engineering to acquire technology. In April, an Iranian commander said Tehran was building a copy of a U.S. drone that it captured last year and took apart. Washington has acknowledged losing the RQ-170 Sentinel.

Iran Challenges its Cyber Enemies

Iran has said it is improving its cyber warfare capabilities to defend government computers against periodic attacks that it blames on Israel and the West.

Stephen Cobb, a security expert at ESET North America, said a country attacked by a virus is "highly likely" to examine the code and redeploy it.

"Malicious code is entirely different from conventional weapons in that you are actually giving the weapon to the person you are attacking," he said.

"It is extremely arrogant to think that the country you are attacking is not going to be able to figure out what the code does and reuse it, or write their own code and attack you back."

Carr of Taia Global said Iran is capable of capturing Western-made cyber tools worth millions of dollars and re-engineering them at a much lower cost.

A More Dangerous Insider Attack

Cobb said the Aramco incident also shows that companies face an escalated threat of cyber-attack from insiders. Experts have said the Shamoon virus was triggered by someone who had privileged access to the Saudi company's computers.

"Typically your insider threat in Western countries is to steal things or possibly exact revenge or hold the company hostage, whereas [the Aramco insider attack] was an act of destruction, and more expensive."

Cobb said the virus probably cost Aramco millions of dollars in lost worker productivity and unanticipated expenses, such as security experts being flown in to repair the damaged computers.

"You cannot assume that all the people working for a company agree with its aims and goals," Cobb said. "If someone with elevated system privileges turns against the company, there is pretty much no limit on what damage they can do."

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

You May Like

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

Euro falls after European Central Bank announces a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program More

Saudi King’s Death Clears Succession Route

Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef is Saudi Arabia's New Crown Prince-in-waiting More

Cloud Hangs Over US Counterterrorism Efforts in Yemen

Sources say resignations of Yemen's president, government has left US anti-terror operations 'paralyzed,' yet an American military 'footprint' remains More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: FALSE FLAG
October 27, 2012 11:04 AM
This is truly one of the most ridiculous attempts at inciting violence upon another that I have ever seen. I wish this worked in real0life, where I could go to my friends house and toss a rock through the window and then go out and blame it on my enemy. I throw the rock and my friend kills my enemy... that's a win-win.


by: Richard Steven Hack from: San Francisco, CA
October 27, 2012 7:07 AM
Still ZERO evidence that Iran's government was behind any attacks. It's all speculation at this point - and most of the speculation appears politically motivated.


by: Lolcast
October 26, 2012 5:13 AM
Interesting... I was just reading on some other website that Panetta had said: "Only few countries in the world are capable of orchestrating such sophisticated attacks". So someone tell me... was it sophisticated or amateurish?!

In Response

by: BP from: Michigan
October 27, 2012 9:16 AM
I agree there are conflicting messages in the article. I hope it is not the work of amatuers since they just took down many of the computers of the biggest oil company.


by: Hundu from: Japan
October 25, 2012 9:36 PM
Iran... what a farce... used to be great... look what Islam has done to them... so sad...

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youthi
X
Julie Taboh
January 23, 2015 11:08 PM
Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.
Video

Video US Marching Bands Grow Into a Show of Their Own

The 2014 Super Bowl halftime show was the most-watched in history - attracting an estimated 115 million viewers. That event featured pop star Bruno Mars. But the halftime show tradition started with marching bands, which still dominate the entertainment at U.S. high school and college American football games. But as Enming Liu reports in this story narrated by Adrianna Zhang, marching bands have grown into a show of their own.
Video

Video Secular, Religious Kurds Face Off in Southeast Turkey

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has been rocked by violence between religious and secular Kurds. Dorian Jones reports on the reasons behind the stand-off from the region's main city of Diyarbakir, which suffered the bloodiest fighting.
Video

Video Kenya: Misuse of Antibiotics Leading to Resistance by Immune System

In Kenya, the rise of drug resistant bacteria could reverse the gains made by medical science over diseases that were once treatable. Kenyans could be at risk of fatalities as a result if the power in antibiotics is not preserved. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story from Nairobi.
Video

Video Solar-Powered Plane Getting Ready to Circumnavigate Globe

Pilots of the solar plane that already set records flying without a drop of fuel are close to making their first attempt to fly the craft around the globe. They plan to do it in 25 flying days over a five month period. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video How Experts Decide Ethiopia Has the Best Coffee

Ethiopia’s coffee has been ranked as the best in the world by an international group of coffee connoisseurs. Not surprisingly, coffee is a top export for the country. But at home it is a source of pride. Marthe van der Wolf in Addis Ababa decided to find out what makes the bean and brew so special and how experts make their determinations.
Video

Video Yazidi Refugees at Center of Political Fight Between Turkey, Kurds

The treatment of thousands of Yazidis refugees who fled to Turkey to escape attacks by Islamic State militants has become the center of a dispute between the Turkish government and the country's pro-Kurdish movement. VOA's Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video World’s Richest 1% Forecast to Own More Than Half of Global Wealth

The combined wealth of the world's richest 1 percent will overtake that of the remaining 99 percent at some point in 2016, according to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam. Campaigners are demanding that policymakers take action to address the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid