A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyberattacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend.
Top U.S. and Iranian diplomats have been holding almost weekly meetings to try to finish the accord by their deadline at the end of March. But behind the scenes of collegiality, an active cyberwar is raging.
A website called The Intercept, which draws on secret U.S. government documents made public by Edward Snowden, published details of a U.S. National Security Agency paper written two years ago that calls for a more robust U.S. response to Iran’s improved cyber warfare abilities.
The report says Iran learned from a virus called Stuxnet that was inserted into its nuclear program, allegedly by U.S. and Israeli intelligence services in 2012.
That incident may have shown Iranian leaders the value of cyberwar capabilities, as compared to expensive, controversial and highly deadly nuclear weapons, according to cyberwar expert David Stupples of City University London.
Iranians "have now realized they have a much stronger weapon at hand," he said. "If they pour resources into that, they can continually attack and continually get payoffs from their activities, quite cheaply."
A basic form of cyberattack is shown in a video produced by Stupples’ team from an actual incident.
The website services each incoming requests, "and you see the answers going back. Where it goes to start being bright, it means the website is becoming quite heavily loaded," said Stupples. "So all the requests are coming in, but nothing is going back. Essentially, the website is completely closed down."
Such overload, or "denial of service" attacks, are irritating. But real problems come when cyberattacks steal or destroy data, as happened in the attack on Sony Pictures last year, allegedly by North Korea. Such attacks also could put people at risk by overheating power plants or taking services like highway signals or air traffic control off line.
A year ago, the new head of the U.S. National Security Agency, Admiral Mike Rogers, told Congress cyber warfare is here to stay.
"Clearly, cyber will be an element of almost any crisis we are going to see in the future," said Rogers. "It has been in the past. I believe we see it today in the Ukraine, we've seen it in Syria, Georgia. It increasingly is becoming a norm."
There also is concern that terrorist groups could move into the cyber domain, said Rachel Briggs, an analyst with London’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
“We know that extremists are trying to use technology in the same way that they use wires and batteries," Briggs said. "They have not ... as far as we know been successful. It will only be a matter of time."
Cyberattacks are inexpensive, secret, deniable and, while frequent, are largely unknown to the public – potentially making them more attractive to terrorists and governments than conventional or nuclear weapons.