MY TAKE: Let’s not lose sight of why Iran is pushing back with military, cyber strikes

By Byron V. Acohido

It is not often that I hear details about the cyber ops capabilities of the USA or UK discussed at the cybersecurity conferences I attend.

Related: We’re in the golden age of cyber spying

Despite the hush-hush nature of Western cyber ops, it is axiomatic in technology and intelligence circles that the USA and UK possess deep hacking and digital spying expertise – capabilities which we regularly deploy to optimize our respective positions in global affairs.

Last week, President Trump took an unheard of step: he flexed American cyber ops muscle out in the open. An offensive cyber strike by the U.S. reportedly knocked out computing systems controlling Iranian rocket and missile launchers, thus arresting global attention for several news cycles.

“The digital strike against Iran is a great example of using USCYBERCOM   as a special ops force, clearly projecting US power by going deep behind enemy lines to knock out the adversary’s intelligence and command-and-control apparatus,” observes Phil Neray, VP of Industrial Cybersecurity for CyberX, a Boston-based supplier of IoT and industrial control system security technologies.

Some context is in order. Trump’s cyber strike against Iran is the latest development in tensions that began in May 2018, when Trump scuttled the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which was the result of 10 years of negotiation between Iran and the United Nations Security Council. The 2015 Iran accord, agreed to by President Obama, set limits on Iran’s nuclear programs in exchange for the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.

For his own reasons, Trump declared the 2015 Iran accord the “worst deal ever,” and has spent the past year steadily escalating tensions with Iran, for instance, by unilaterally imposing multiple rounds of fresh sanctions.

Iran pushes back

This, of course, has pushed Iran into a corner, and forced Iran to push back. It’s important to keep in mind that Iran, as well as Europe and the U.S., were meeting the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, prior to Trump scuttling the deal.  Let’s not forget that a  hard-won stability was in place, prior to Trump choosing to stir the pot.

Today, Iran is scrambling for support from whatever quarter it can get it. It’s moves, wise or unwise, are quite clearly are calculated to compel European nations to weigh in on its behalf. However, many of Iran’s chess moves have also translated into fodder for Trump to stir animosity against Iran.

For instance, the U.S. has accused Iran of the bombing of two oil tankers on June 13th, and the shooting down of an unmanned U.S. drone on June 20th.

Meanwhile, Iran has been busy with offensive cyber strikes, of its own — against the U.S. Reports from U.S. cybersecurity vendors CrowdStrike and FireEye point to Iran-backed hacking collectives targeting US government agencies, as well as finance and energy companies with spear-phishing emails.

Then last Saturday, the  Department of Homeland Security alerted U.S. companies about increased cyber-activity from Iranian hackers, and urged them to take proactive steps to detect and deter data-wiping malware, credential stuffing attacks, password spraying and spear-phishing.

Again, keep in mind this all comes after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015  Iran deal — and began imposing fresh sanctions on Iran.

Stranger than fiction

Of course, nation-state backed cyber ops has been intensively carried out by all of the major superpowers for several decades. Cyber spying and cyber disruptions for strategic advantage is nothing new. However, what’s distinctive about this particular round of cyber attacks and counterattacks is that they were initially triggered mainly to meet a personal political agenda.

Meanwhile, minimal consideration is being given to the global stability that resulted from the 10-year negotiation process under the United Nations Security Council, now summarily reversed by President Trump.

If this pattern seems somehow familiar, it may be because you, like me, were moved by Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog,” or Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove,” or even Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels.”

As our reliance on the Internet deepens, and the sophistication of cyber weapons rises, the potential damage – both direct and collateral – has become truly worrisome.  Unfortunately, we’ve arrived at a point where real life may have superseded satirical fiction.

It’s important not to lose sight about of we got to this point. Keep paying attention, and please, everyone, keep the factual record in mind. One can only hope that reason prevails. Talk more soon.

Acohido

Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist Byron V. Acohido is dedicated to fostering public awareness about how to make the Internet as private and secure as it ought to be.


 

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