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

Uganda Court Annuls Anti-Gay Law

Court says law was passed in parliament without enough members present for a full quorum More

Multimedia Thailand Makes Efforts to Improve Conditions for Migrant Laborers

In Thailand, its not uncommon for parents to bring their children to work; one company, in-collaboration with other organizations, address safety concerns More

In Indonesia, Jihad Video Raises Concern

Video calls on Indonesians to join Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL 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.
In Thailand, Some Efforts to Improve Conditions For Migrant Laborersi
X
Steve Herman
August 01, 2014 6:22 PM
Thailand has been facing increasing international scrutiny as a hub of human trafficking and slave labor. Some of the kingdom’s companies are striving to improve working conditions, especially for the millions of migrant laborers from surrounding countries. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok takes a look at one initiative for children at construction sites
Video

Video In Thailand, Some Efforts to Improve Conditions For Migrant Laborers

Thailand has been facing increasing international scrutiny as a hub of human trafficking and slave labor. Some of the kingdom’s companies are striving to improve working conditions, especially for the millions of migrant laborers from surrounding countries. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok takes a look at one initiative for children at construction sites
Video

Video Public Raises its Voice on Power Plant Pollution

In the United States, proposed rules to cut pollution from the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants are generating a heated debate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged with writing and implementing the plan, has already received 300,000 written comments. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, another 1,600 people are lining up this week at EPA headquarters and at satellite offices around the country to give their testimony in person.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video China Investigates Powerful Former Security Chief

The public in China is welcoming the Communist Party's decision to investigate one of the country's once most powerful politicians, former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang. Analysts say the move by President Xi Jinping is not only an effort to win more support for the party, but an essential step to furthering much needed economic reforms and removing those who would stand in the way of change. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.

AppleAndroid