Sunday, June 9, 2013

U.S. Helps Allies Trying to Battle Iranian Hackers

The American officials would not say which countries in the Persian Gulf have signed up for help in countering Iran’s computer abilities. But the list, some officials say, includes the nations that have been the most active in tracking Iranian arms shipments, intercepting them in ports and providing intelligence to the United States about Iranian actions. The three most active in that arena are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

In Asia, the countries most worried about being struck by North Korean computer attacks are South Korea and Japan.

The Defense Department’s assertive new effort in the gulf and Asia is the latest example of how the Obama administration is increasingly tailoring its national security efforts for a new era of digital conflict, in this case assuring the defense of computer networks and, if necessary, striking back against assaults.

A directive signed by the president that surfaced Friday — the third in a series of leaked documents published by the newspapers The Guardian and The Washington Post — underscored how the Obama administration is trying to prepare itself and its allies. The leaks also revealed how the Obama administration has put in place a large Internet surveillance operation to identify terrorism threats.

The presidential directive included the declaration that the United States reserved the right to take “anticipatory action” against “imminent threats,” a reference, it seemed, to the kind of crippling infrastructure attacks that Iran appears to be working on against American and allied targets.

The new help for strengthening computer-network defenses for allies, which has not been publicly announced, closely parallels earlier efforts by the Obama administration in two volatile parts of the world. In recent years it has helped install advanced missile-defense systems and early-warning radars in Persian Gulf nations to counter Iran’s missile ability, and it has done something similar in Asia in response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

But deterring cyberattacks is a far more complex problem, and American officials concede that this effort, which will include providing computer hardware and software and training to allies, is an experiment. It has been propelled by two high-profile attacks in the past year. One was against Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s largest, state-run oil producer, and according to American officials it was carried out by Iran. That attack crippled 30,000 computers but did not succeed in halting production. The other, an attack on South Korea’s banking and media companies this spring, was later attributed to North Korea. It froze the ability of several banks to operate for days.

“The Iranian attack on the Saudis was a real wake-up call in the region,” said one senior administration official, who would not speak on the record about the American efforts to counter Iran. “It made everyone realize that while the Iranians might think twice about launching a missile attack in the region, they see cyber as a potent way to lash out in response to sanctions.”

The administration is capitalizing on the fear created by those attacks to build on the de facto alliance against Iran that it has constructed in the region. The Pentagon is drawing up proposals for providing advanced hardware and software for computer-network defense that could be sold throughout the Persian Gulf, much as American aircraft and missiles are sold to Arab allies. Training programs are being put together to teach computer security to military and law enforcement in the region, and to collaborate with private companies.

And, just as the Pentagon conducts naval exercises in the Persian Gulf to practice ways of keeping the Strait of Hormuz open, officials say future joint war games would include simulated cyberattacks, similar to the one Iran conducted against Saudi Aramco.

The idea is to give American and allied forces practice carrying out their missions with their networks under duress, officials said.

The new interagency effort in Washington comes at a time when Israeli and American intelligence officials have been concerned by Iran’s swift advances in its computer weaponry, particularly its ability to disrupt existing infrastructure. As one former senior American military commander said recently, “They have startled everyone with the speed at which their capabilities have increased.”

But one continuing point of dispute is whether Iran and North Korea are working together on the development of cyberweapons, the way they have worked together for years on the development of missile technology.

A senior Israeli military official said Israel had evidence that Iran and North Korea were beginning to collaborate on developing cyberweapons. He declined to cite the specific evidence.

Although there is concern in Washington that cooperation between Iran and North Korea could spread to computer tools, American officials say there is no proof of such collaboration.

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