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

Photogallery US Nurse ‘Cured of Ebola,’ NIH Says

Nina Pham, Texas nurse who treated first Ebola patient in US, received no experimental drugs; WHO expects vaccine surge in 2015 More

Video Islamic State Militants Encroach on Baghdad

Iraqi capital not under ‘imminent threat,’ US military says, amid worries about foothold More

Video Hong Kong Protesters Focus on Holding Volatile Mong Kok

Activists say holding Mong Kok is key to their movement's success, despite confrontations with angry residents and police 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.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid