Saudi Arabia and Iran trade cyber-attacks

Sunday 12/06/2016
Middle East cyber-security market will reach $9.56 billion in 2019

LONDON - The cold war between Sau­di Arabia and Iran is heat­ing up in cyberspace with the countries exchanging a number of computer-based attacks in recent weeks.
A group of websites affiliated with the Iranian Foreign Ministry were hit with a major cyber-attack recently and Tehran quickly blamed Riyadh. According to Iranian au­thorities, more than 50 Foreign Ministry websites were compro­mised in a series of hacks between May 24th and June 1st by activists who called themselves Team Bad Dream.
The hackers took down the web­sites and posted content that in­cluded a collage photo of Saudi kings.
One of Saudi Arabia’s most wide­ly circulated daily newspapers, Al Watan, which is owned by mem­bers of the royal family, then had its website hacked, with its editor accusing Iran of being responsible.
Hackers remotely accessed the website of the newspaper, which is known for a liberal slant, and up­loaded false reports and statements attributed to Crown Prince Moham­med bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz.
A statement issued by the news­paper said the publication’s website was hacked the morning of June 2nd by “hostile groups from out­side the kingdom”, who “were able to control the website for a period of time and published fabricated news”, including a false statement attributed to the crown prince about Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen.
Al Watan Editor Othman al-Sini said in a television interview that the cyber-attacks uploaded fake news items that were sympathetic to Iran and the Houthi rebels, which are at war with an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
It is unclear whether the attacks were state-sponsored or the work of independent hacktivists.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have up­graded cyber-defence capabilities in recent years. Iran took such steps after a 2012 attack on its nuclear facilities, which Tehran blamed on the United States and Israel.
In March, the US State Depart­ment charged seven Iranians for allegedly compromising the com­puter systems of several banks in the period 2011-13.
The latest cyber-attack, allegedly by Iranian hackers, pales in com­parison to previous cyber-sabotage actions.
In August 2012, Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil and gas company, fell victim to a malware virus that infected 30,000 comput­ers. The so-called Shamoon virus, which took Aramco ten days to eradicate, was planted by a politi­cally motivated group calling itself the Cutting Sword of Justice, which US investigators say is tied to Iran.
Because of the growing regional threat that government-sponsored hackers, as well as cyber-terrorists, pose, estimates indicate that the Middle East cyber-security mar­ket will reach $9.56 billion in 2019. Iran, for example, has gone from low-level capabilities to almost the same standard of sophistication shown by China and Russia, ana­lysts said.
“In terms of awareness, things are considerably better than they were two or three years ago,” said Mohamed al-Harbi, a 34-year-old Riyadh-based IT consultant, who counts a number of online publica­tions as clients.
According to Harbi, the level of protection depends on what a par­ticular entity has to lose. The finan­cial and energy sectors can be de­scribed as being more secure than, for example, a newspaper website.
“Taking into consideration that we have not seen an attack on the level it was a couple of years ago is an indicator of better security pro­cedures but that could change over­night as methods by cyber-armies are also evolving,” he said.
He stressed that the interception of text messages carrying personal codes and passwords has become popular in the Middle East, which gives hackers the ability to access personal information, including ap­plications on smart phones.
The situation has escalated in recent years, leading Saudi Arabia to establish cyber-crime laws. Ac­cording to Saudi statutes, if an indi­vidual or group knowingly accesses a government network without authorisation, particularly if the information accessed has national security implications, the act could lead to a $1.3 million fine and up to ten years in prison. It is the same penalty as for charges of supporting terrorism through the internet.