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North Korea, Iran, Syria -- asymmetric cyberwar is here to stay

John E Dunn | Jan. 2, 2015
Small nations have been attacking the US for years. Why has nobody noticed until now?

Until last week very few beyond a handful of security titles, a few cybersecurity vendors and the middle pages of the New York Times paid much attention to the growing issue of small nations with big cyber-ambitions.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, one of these, the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (DPRK), is accused by the US Government of launching a destructive no-holds barred cyberattack on a major Hollywood firm and there is amazement and not a little scepticism.

Is this wariness justified or is there something else at work here?

When major cyberattacks or breaches occur it's now normal for a dozen of more security firms to offer up spokespeople or quotes from in-house experts, but the moment of the major but under-reported 2013 attacks on South Korea was very different. Seemingly struck dumb, few firms said anything. This was a local issue and nobody could see an angle that interested them, a curious contrast to the attack on Sony which has taken over some newsfeeds to an almost hysterical level.

The odd thing is that major cyberattacks by small nations on US firms are not new, it's just that nobody's been particularly interested until the victims started being more famous names. In 2012, Iran was widely believed to have been behind a series of vast DDoS attacks directed at the US finance and banking sector, serious enough to make it impossible to customers to log on to online accounts, and yet coverage was muted. There was no argument about whether private US Government private briefings on Iran's involvement were plausible because there was basically no debate at all.

More recently, came Operation Cleaver, an alarmingly complex cyber-campaign directed mainly at US energy firms, again also attributed to Iran by the FBI in a sort of reverse Stuxnet few would have once have thought possible from such a deprived state in the midst of economic sanctions.

Ditto, a series of increasingly serious nuisance attacks since 2011 claimed by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), that country's centrally-directed but geographically dispersed (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan) campaign to keep the country's regime in the news. People downplay these attacks as little more buzzing insects but try telling that to the hundreds of major brands that only weeks ago noticed their pages redirecting to a landing page promoting the SEA after a cunning redirection attack.

Tell it indeed to the New York Times that in 2013 was humiliatingly locked out of its website for a day by the same attackers or Twitter and Google that rushed the introduction of two-factor authentication to their services fend off the growing number of account takeovers by this group.


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