Iran is suspected of taking revenge for U.S. sanctions by targeting oil companies with cyber attacks, knocking out Saudi Arabia’s Aramco’s computers for two weeks but not disrupting oil production.
Last week’s reported MiniFlame virus hit Lebanese and Iran computers, but U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has admitted that the “Shamoon” virus disabled Aramco’s computers, AFP reported. He called the virus "the most destructive attack that the private sector has seen to date."
A disruption to Saudi Arabia's oil exports could cause oil prices to spike from their already elevated prices and tip the fragile global economy into recession.
The virus also struck a joint venture between U.S. oil firm Exxon Mobil and state-controlled Qatar Petroleum.
The cyber attacks confirmed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s warning two weeks ago that “there have been increasing efforts to carry out cyber attacks on Israel's computer infrastructure.”
Panetta warned that a "cyber-Pearl Harbor" justifies a policy of moving aggressively against threats.
He said that the U.S. military "has developed the capability to conduct effective operations to counter (cyber) threats to our national interests."
A senior U.S. administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP the cyber attack on the Gulf oil giants was believed to be carried out by a "state actor" and acknowledged that Iran would be a prime suspect.
American officials have "more than a suspicion" that Iran was to blame for the August attacks, said James Lewis, who has worked for the State Department and other government agencies on national security and cyber issues and who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
He said that United States authorities were used to cyber espionage from Russia and China, but were surprised by the swift rise in Iran's digital warfare capability. "A lot of people didn't think it would develop this quickly," he said.
However, previous Stuxnet virus attacks on hundreds of Iran’s centrifuges, presumably staged by Israel and the United States, makes it unsurprising that Iran would seek a cyber warfare capability
Stuxnet marked a transformation for computer viruses, which had previously been used for spying or by organized crime, into a tool for sabotage.
Kaspersky Labs, which detected the "Flame" and "Gauss" viruses believed behind those attacks, said "we have only just scratched the surface of the massive cyber espionage operations ongoing in the Middle East. Their full purpose remains obscure and the identity of the victims and the attackers remains unknown."
Nicolas Arpagian at France's National Institute of Advanced Security and Justice Studies, said that the latest attacks "show that arsenal of digital weapons is getting bigger, and that when you have such an arsenal the use of cyber weapons is bound to become more commonplace."