It appears Iran may have reverse engineered U.S.-made malware and turn it back on the U.S. and its ally

When it comes to cyberaggression against the U.S., the typical culprit is China.  But growing evidence suggests that a recent round of malware cyberattacks on the U.S. and its Middle Eastern ally Saudi Arabia may have been the work of Iran.  Further, the evidence hints that the Iranians may have cleverly turned malware that the U.S. used on it in cybersabotage attempts back on the attackers.

I. Def. Secretary Implies Iran is Behind New Malware Attacks

The attacks in question revolved around a piece of malware dubbed Shamoon or Disttrack by security researchers.  This particular malware -- which resembles the sophisticated Flame package the U.S. used to spy on Iran and, allegedly, to attack its oil industry -- hit the Saudi Arabian Oil Comp. (Aramco), the world's largest oil producer and privately held company.

Security consultants quoted by The New York Times acknowledge that there has been no formal announcement from Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta that the attacks originated in Iran, but they say the evidence points to Tehran.  One unnamed consultant is quoted as saying, "What the Iranians want to do now is make it clear they can disrupt our economy, just as we are disrupting theirs. And they are quite serious about it."

In a recent speech Sec. Panetta did seem to implicate Iran in a roundabout way, stating, "Iran... [has] undertaken a concerted effort to use cyberspace to its advantage."

Leon Panetta
DoD Secretary Leon Panetta implied that Iran was behind the latest cyberattacks.
[Image Source: The New York Times]

James A. Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, comments in an analysis post, "His speech laid the dots alongside each other without connecting them.  Iran has discovered a new way to harass much sooner than expected, and the United States is ill-prepared to deal with it."

In addition to causing maintenance headaches for Aramco, the malware attack also lashed out at top U.S. financial institutions, creating difficulties -- in some cases -- for customers accessing accounts.  Experts say this is possibly the first time Iran has used malware against its foes; Iran's past cyberwar efforts have focused on crude brute-force methods, such as distributed denial of service (DDoS) strikes.

II. Iran -- More Feisty Than Expected

The attacks show that Iran is proving a more savvy foe technologically than the U.S. anticipated.  Much like Iran's clever spoofing effort to down a U.S. spy drone in early Dec. 2011, the new attacks show Iran's so-called Passive Defense Organization (PDO) indeed acting in a reactionary manner as its name implies.

In both cases, the U.S. appears to have initiated the first strike, but Iran proved savvy enough to offer a substantial response.  That's a big victory for Gholamreza Jalali, a veteran of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, who now leads Irans PDO, who vowed to "to fight [Iran's] enemies" in "cyberspace and Internet warfare".

Gibson Neuromancer
Iran has vowed to defend itself against U.S. cyberagression.
[Image Source: Interplay (cover art for Neuromancer game)]

For the U.S. it represents the entrance into a shadowy and uncertain world in which the playing field is somewhat leveled between the strong and the weak in terms of traditional military.  Long outlined by science fiction visionaries like William Gibson, this war is quite different from conventional warfare in that its most powerful weapons may be used without the general public ever knowing.

III. U.S. Sees Its Own Weapons Turned Against it

U.S. Department of Defense officials reportedly disagreed recently on whether we should announced our cyber-weapons as a deterrent, similar to how America flaunts its nuclear arsenal.  However, the prevailing sentiment is that cyberweapons are best kept secret, as there's no tactical gain to mentioning them.  Comments one defense official speaking to The NYT, "The countries who need to know we have [cyber-weapons] already know."

Sec. Panetta in his comments suggests that the U.S. needs to up its counter-offensive capabilities in cyberspace to protect itself and its allies.  He opines, "We won’t succeed in preventing a cyber attack through improved defenses alone.  If we detect an imminent threat of attack that will cause significant, physical destruction in the United States or kill American citizens, we need to have the option to take action against those who would attack us to defend this nation when directed by the president. For these kinds of scenarios, the department has developed that capability to conduct effective operations to counter threats to our national interests in cyberspace."

Some have said that increased cooperating between the government and private sector firms (e.g. in this case, the bank industry) in order to protect the market.  But such efforts bring thorny issues of privacy and market meddling.

The idea of pre-emptive cyberstrikes is also controversial.  That appears to be what the U.S. did against Iran, and it's now apparent that there may have been some reprecussions, when the foe proved less weak and susceptible than expected.  The U.S. did set back Tehran's economy and nuclear ambitions.  But now, as they say, the worm has turned, and it's seeing its own weapons reverse-engineered and turned back at it and its allies.

Computer worm
The U.S. has seen its own cyber-weapons turned against it. [Image Source: TechTear]
Of course such a phenomena isn't unique to the cyber realm, it's important to remember -- after all the U.S. funneled conventional weapons to Saddam Hussein and the Taliban only to see the weapons later turned against it in the hands of terrorists, insurgents, and hostile regimes.

Sources: The New York Times, Foreign Policy [blog]

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