A new front has opened in the increasingly intense cyber contest between Israel and Iran. On 24 April, a water facility in central Israel was hit by a cyberattack attributed to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Cyber winter is coming
The head of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate, Yigal Unna, declared that this development would be remembered as ‘a point of change in the history of modern cyberwars’.
Two weeks later, Israel retaliated with a cyber strike that temporarily disrupted operations at a busy Iranian port.
The tit-for-tat cyber strikes between Iran and Israel may be a taste of future warfare. Attacks against infrastructure and industrial control systems look set to become more prominent as the cyber capacity of less advanced states grows.
At the time, Israel downplayed the incident, simply describing it as an attempted attack that was dealt with by the water authority and the National Cyber Directorate. It said that no harm had been done to the water supply and that systems continued to operate without interruption. Only on 7 May was the attack first attributed to Iran.
Subsequent reporting, citing anonymous foreign intelligence officials, indicated that the attack was routed through US and European servers and ‘targeted “programmable logic controllers” that operate valves for water distribution networks’.
Iran was able to seize control of or alter operating systems and wipe data from at least six sites, and potentially from dozens, although it was unable to disrupt water supplies or waste management. The level of sophistication of the attack was described by one intelligence official as ‘miserable’.
However, an official cited by the Financial Times said later that the attack was more sophisticated than Israel initially thought. It was close to successful, and it wasn’t clear why it didn’t succeed.
The aim of the attack may have been to increase the amount of chlorine added to the water, which could have triggered fail-safe measures that would have left thousands of farmers and householders without water during a heat wave and pandemic.