Iran isn't at the top of the list of cyberthreats to the U.S. today, but the bad news is that the Iranian government has the intent and motivation to become a major threat -- and appears to be shifting from defense to offense, according to expert testimony today on Capitol Hill.
"The good news is that if you rack and stack the greatest cyberthreats to the U.S., Iran is not at the top of the list. But the bad news is what they lack in capability, they make up for in intent," said Frank Cilluffo, associate vice president and director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, in remarks before a joint subcommittee hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security. "Given Iran's history of [deploying] proxies, they would have little, if any, reason to hesitate to use proxies to engage."
And cyberattacks basically allow for a less-technologically advanced nation also under economic sanctions, such as Iran, to strike on a more level playing field, according to Cilluffo and other experts in the joint hearing of the House Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies and the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
"This symmetry gives small groups a disproportionate impact," and they can buy or rent the cyberattack resources, Cilluffo said.
While the Stuxnet attack that disabled Iran's nuclear facility in 2010 has not been officially attributed to any party, most experts agree it was likely a Western nation, such as Israel and/or the U.S. Iran has declared that Western nations were behind the attack. "From an Iranian perspective, it's very clear that the West launched an asymmetric attack on Iran, and [they are] creating a response," said Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, in his remarks in the hearing.
Most recently, Iran suffered a malware attack vaguely reminiscent of the Stuxnet attack. Iranian oil ministry officials said the malware infected their network as well as the country's main oil export terminal, forcing the nation to take those systems offline temporarily.
[ The ability of the Stuxnet cyberattack to physically impact equipment has made cybersecurity significantly more important for U.S. domestic security strategy, a former counterterrorism official said. See Stuxnet Changes Terrorism Equation, Says Former CIA Official. ]
Berman said there has been "a seismic shift" in how Iran looks at the U.S. "Conventional wisdom says Iran doesn't pose a threat" given the heavy economic sanctions against it, Berman said. "But for the same reasons, I would make an argument that Iranian asymmetric action against the U.S. is more likely."
Iranian officials have been vocal about their plans to build out their cyberattack capabilities, and reportedly launched a $1 billion government program to beef up technologies and expertise, according to Berman, indicating that Iran is ready to come after the U.S. "The most salient question of all is, are we ready for it?" he said.
Another challenge, he said, is that an Iranian cyberattack against the U.S. could look like a Chinese-borne or Russian-borne attack, making attribution problematic. "But Iran has talked about U.S. critical infrastructure," he said, while China and Russia have been more about spying and stealing U.S. intellectual property.
GW's Cilluffo said the plausible deniability of a cyberattack makes it so difficult to determine who is behind the keyboard. And China and Russia, which have been engaging mostly in cyberespionage against the U.S., could ultimately "flip the switch" and go on the offense, he said.
The worry, too, is that future Stuxnet-like attacks won't be so targeted and could cause a more catastrophic effect on various U.S. infrastructures, the experts said.
But the missing link, they said, is a real offensive strategy by the U.S. "We don't have a cyberdeterrence strategy ... we need to have one and to identify what is unacceptable," Cilluffo said. "We need to start talking about offensive. We can't 'firewall' our way out of it."
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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio