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Silent War

Vanity Fair, By Michael Joseph Gross

On the hidden battlefields of history’s first known cyber-war, the casualties are piling up. In the U.S., many banks have been hit, and the telecommunications industry seriously damaged, likely in retaliation for several major attacks on Iran. Washington and Tehran are ramping up their cyber-arsenals, built on a black-market digital arms bazaar, enmeshing such high-tech giants as Microsoft, Google, and Apple. With the help of highly placed government and private-sector sources, Michael Joseph Gross describes the outbreak of the conflict, its escalation, and its startling paradox: that America’s bid to stop nuclear proliferation may have unleashed a greater threat.

I. Battlespace

Their eyeballs felt it first. A wall of 104-degree air hit the cyber-security analysts as they descended from the jets that had fetched them, on a few hours’ notice, from Europe and the United States. They were in Dhahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia, a small, isolated city that is the headquarters of the world’s largest oil company, Saudi aramco. The group included representatives of Oracle, IBM, CrowdStrike, Red Hat, McAfee, Microsoft, and several smaller private firms—a SWAT dream team for the virtual realm. They came to investigate a computer-network attack that had occurred on August 15, 2012, on the eve of a Muslim holy day called Lailat al Qadr, “the Night of Power.” Technically the attack was crude, but its geopolitical implications would soon become alarming.

The data on three-quarters of the machines on the main computer network of Saudi aramco had been destroyed. Hackers who identified themselves as Islamic and called themselves the Cutting Sword of Justice executed a full wipe of the hard drives of 30,000 aramco personal computers. For good measure, as a kind of calling card, the hackers lit up the screen of each machine they wiped with a single image, of an American flag on fire. Read more.