Don’t Expect a Physical Threat from Iranian Cyberwarriors Anytime Soon


Any nation state needs three qualities -- not just the capability -- to carry out a cyberattack that could crash a plane, cut off power or damage other infrastructure.

Iran's reported ability to conduct cyber operations that could damage U.S. infrastructure is not an immediate threat, say federal and industry security analysts.

On Tuesday, cybersecurity firm Cylance released a two-year study positing that as Iran’s cyberwarfare matures, "the probability of an attack that could impact the physical world at a national or global level is rapidly increasing."

The report documents how Iran's online skills have progressed from vandalizing websites and causing "denial of service" attacks that cripple websites without compromising data -- to compromising airline systems abroad.

The campaign, in part, may be Iran's way of exerting power over delayed multilateral nuclear negotiations that last week were pushed back to 2015, Cylance postulates.

But any nation state, be it China, Russia or Iran, needs three qualities -- not just the capability -- to carry out a cyberattack that could crash a plane, cut off power or damage other infrastructure, according to U.S. officials. 

"Do they have the capacity to actually do, at a large scale, an attack? Do they have the capability, the technical skills to be able to do it? And third, do they have the intent?" said Mary Ellen Seale, deputy director of the National Cybersecurity Center within the Department of Homeland Security. "You really need all three to wage the kind of things you are talking about." She was speaking Tuesday, during a Nextgov webcast interview, generally, about state-sponsored cyberattacks that cause physical violence or otherwise roil society.

Other security analysts note that even if Iran had these three pieces, the country likely would be too scared to act out in cyberspace, for fear of retaliatory bombing.

"If the United States is able to say, 'We know you did it,' then there will be a kinetic response,” said Gary McGraw, chief technology officer at Cigital. “I doubt very much that they would like that to be the case – remember, this is all playing out in a much larger context." 

Still, a sizable, likely state-sponsored group of hackers -- dubbed "Cleaver" -- clearly is building capability, capacity and motive, according to the new report. 

"Perhaps the most bone-chilling evidence we collected in this campaign was the targeting and compromise of transportation networks and systems such as airlines and airports in South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The level of access seemed ubiquitous," the authors write. "Their entire remote access infrastructure and supply chain was under the control of the Cleaver team . . . They achieved complete access to airport gates and their security control systems, potentially allowing them to spoof gate credentials."

Cylance speculates the campaign could affect airline passenger safety or impair "industrial control systems" that operate machinery. Much of this aggression is seen as a response to Stuxnet, an alleged U.S.-Israel engineered virus that sabotaged the industrial systems supporting Iran's nuclear program. 

It's also possible adversaries with little tech savvy, such as North Korea, are conspiring with Iran to exert cyber power, the researchers said.

"Cleaver’s intense focus on critical infrastructure companies, especially in South Korea, hints at information sharing or joint operations with Iran’s partner, North Korea," the report said. The two U.S. adversaries inked an agreement for technology cooperation in 2012. 

Seale, from DHS, said multistate collaboration on cyberattacks is a real risk, but not an imminent one. What “we’re concerned about is when multiple nation states may partner together to bring those three core skills together: capability, capacity and intent," she said. "Whether that will happen with three nation states is probably not next year."

The distinction between compromising information and compromising real-world operations is key. 

The report acknowledges there is no direct evidence of a successful compromise of specific industrial control systems, but Team Cleaver did copy extremely sensitive data from many critical infrastructure operators that would allow it to do so. 

Cleaver -- the word appears in lines of the team's software code -- has targeted over 50 organizations worldwide, such as utilities, hospitals and the aerospace industry, among other vital sectors. Ten of the victims have headquarters in the United States, including a major airline, a medical university, an energy company specializing in natural gas production, an automobile manufacturer, a large defense contractor, and a major military installation. The report does not name the affected entities. 

(Image via Sangoiri/