Updated: Aug 1
With COVID-19 in full swing, earlier this month, Both Iran and Israel have been involved in an exchange of Cyber-attacks with a view to destabilizing the Physical Infrastructure of both nations. It should be noted that attacks of such nature can also inflict harm on civilians. The unprecedented event should be a wake-up call for the International Community to rethink their approach towards Cyber Conflicts.
To provide context, in early May, Israel alleged that Iranian hackers tried to contaminate a Water facility by increasing the content of Chlorine which, if successful, would have rendered a sizable portion of the Israeli Population ill. A spokesperson on behalf of the Iranian Regime has denied the aforesaid allegations. However, an unknown Israeli Official stated that “It was more sophisticated than they (Israel) initially thought”, “It was close to successful, and it’s not fully clear why it didn’t succeed.” While it is also believed that the Water Installations which were attacked were not connected to the Main Systems or “Critical Infrastructure”. This could have mitigated the ramifications of the attack. Adding on, it could have set a new precedent for using Cyber Technology for disrupting civilian infrastructure.
However, the allegations levelled against Iran should be taken with a grain of salt. It is to be noted that this isn’t the first time Iran has used cyber attacks, either by itself or through its allies, to destabilize its Regional Rivals, especially, Israel and Saudi Arabia. In 2012, Iran was involved in a cyber attack against the Saudi state corporation: Aramco and in September 2019, Aramco’s Physical Infrastructure was attacked by Drones and Cruise Missiles. Quite unsurprisingly, the Iranian regime didn’t accept responsibility for the aforementioned events.
The Israelis believe that the Kinetic Warfare that Tehran has resorted to is a part of its overarching campaign (which includes Militarily and Financially assisting Hezbollah, Hamas and other terror outfits in the region and of course, its push for nuclearization) to further the interests of expanding its political influence in the region and to destabilize Israel.
In response, Israel was responsible for a Cyber attack in the Shahid Rajaee Port in Southern Iran directed towards the operating mechanisms of Shipping Corporations which in turn caused a waterway congestion that lasted for a few days. An Iranian Official later confirmed that the said attack has its origins in Israel. But what both the aforementioned attacks have in common is that it exposed the fact even Civilian and Non-Governmental entities are vulnerable to cyber operations.
Furthermore, As far as its influence in the Cyberspace is concerned, Iran is definitely a force to be reckoned with, but it’s a tad bit unfair to hold it in the same breath as the United States, Russia, China and Israel. Furthermore, it is imperative to note that with the world's increasing dependence on digitalization, there’s a good chance that Cyberspace can be used as a battleground to further one’s interests and, since threats of cyber-attacks are becoming imminent, it has to be taken seriously by the International Community. This predicament is further exacerbated by the fact that there’s literally no international treaty or an agreement to govern Cyber operations.
While it is to be agreed that there are Countries with National Cyber-Security Legislation in place, the Israel-Iran Cyber Attacks has shed light on the fact that most nations have a very naïve understanding about cyber technology and the scale of damage it can inflict on all types of Infrastructure. For instance, Until 2016, Shin Beth, the Israeli Security agency was tasked with protecting “Critical Civilian Infrastructure” from Cyber Attacks and later in 2016, its authority over such infrastructure was relinquished in favor of a newly created National Cyber Directorate. But unfortunately, the installations that were involved in the recent Iranian Cyber Attack didn’t come under the purview of Civilian Infrastructure but Nevertheless had the ability to inflict a great deal of harm on the Civilians. Given this event, expansion of scope and functions to effectively deal with Cyber Attacks hereafter are on the cards.
This directs us to the fact that Cyberspace, if leveraged properly, can be used against a wide variety of Information/Operational Technology-Driven Infrastructure. Hence it doesn’t come as a surprise that Cyber Technology is as much or even more capable than other types of warfare that the world has witnessed.
To conclude, the Iran-Israel Cyber Warfare is an event so significant that it could kickstart a new era for Cyberspace regulations and hopefully, it would bring all relevant parties around the table to formulate an International Treaty for Cyberspace Regulations as reiterated in the agreement signed last year by 27 United Nations Member states.