Dramatic Escalation in Cyber Warfare

A cyber-attack upon Israel in April this year has now been revealed to be far more important than it first seemed.

Early in May reports emerged that Iranian hackers had used American computer servers to attack several Israeli water supply facilities.

Water Filtration Plant control roomEshkol Water Filtration Plant control room (photo Flash90/Moshe Shai)

Whilst cyber warfare between Israel and Iran is nothing new, this attack was different in as much as the target was civilian infrastructure rather than military resources.

An American expert described Iran’s aggressive behaviour as very disturbing. David Kennedy told Fox News:

“Any time you have a state actor engaged in industrial sabotage, that is a real cause for concern.
When you attack a critical service like water, power, hospitals, or transportation,
you are essentially putting lives at risk.”

Early reports were that some slight damage to water valves and control systems occurred, but there was no lasting damage to the water supply.

However, just last week Yigal Unna, head of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate, said the attack marked the first time in modern history that:

“we can see something like this aiming to cause damage to real life and not to IT or data.”

Had his group not detected the attack in time, chlorine or other chemicals could have been mixed into the water supply in the wrong proportions with potentially disastrous consequences.

This represents a major change in the use of cyber warfare.

In recognition of that fact, the Israelis are reported to have retaliated with a counterattack on an Iranian port. Computer systems at the Shahid Rajaee port in the Strait of Hormuz were disrupted, creating long queues of lorries and significant delays in shipments.

Intelligence officials say the counterattack was designed as a warning to Iran not to target Israeli infrastructure again.

But just yesterday, the Financial Times quoted a Western official as saying the initial attack on Israel had the potential to put hundreds of people in danger, by effectively poisoning Israel’s domestic water supply, and that the attack had come close to succeeding.

Had it done so, it would most likely have triggered fail-safe mechanisms that would have shut down pumps and left tens of thousands of Israeli citizens and farms without clean water. The impact would have been exaggerated because of Israel experiencing a heatwave at the time.

These are very serious developments in the realm of cyber warfare and will undoubtedly be followed by further actions as countries continue to explore this clandestine way of inflicting damage upon enemies.