Iranian hackers have allegedly penetrated U.S. energy firms, further worrying security officials that foreign interests could compromise and damage key devices and services in the U.S. infrastructure.
While Chinese hackers may have asserted themselves as kings of intellectual property theft and privacy breaches, Iranian-backed hackers have established themselves as capable of producing immediate hostile, real-world, damage. It's a skill they've rapidly increased over the past 18 months.
Such security compromises could grant the hackers the ability to disrupt key oil pipelines, power grids and other utility infrastructure by accessing the control systems companies use to run their businesses.
This isn't the first time Iranian hackers have attacked and embedded themselves in U.S. assets. The hackers have previously attacked banks with denial of service attacks, and have broken into infrastructure computers before - though not to this level.
In responses to the attacks, the Department of Homeland Security had issued a warning to companies in the potentially affected industries, and asked for increased information sharing on any security threats which may confront them.
The attacks, according to The New York Times, are seen as a form of retaliation by Iran for previous U.S. slights and international sanctions, which have severely damaged the Iranian economy.
While the U.S. has yet to present evidence of the security compromises, officials say the attacks are looking to take control of the infrastructure systems.
"This is representative of stepped-up cyber activity by the Iranian regime. The more they do this, the more our concerns grow," a U.S. official said to The Wall Street Journal. "What they have done so far has certainly been noticed, and they should be cautious."
The question now, as Jeff Moss, chief security officer at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, said to The New York Times, is when a mild security annoyance crosses a threshold into a major cybersecurity threat.
But the U.S. is far from innocent when it comes to state-sponsored hacking. The Stuxnet virus, a cooperative cyberwarfare virus produced by the U.S. and Israel, was used to compromise and destroy Iranian centrifuges being used to enrich uranium. Iran claims it's enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, though the U.S. and Israel have long suspected the rogue country is attempting to build a nuclear bomb.
The existence of such a device in Iranian hands could quickly destabilize the Middle East. Israel has long said that the small, but technologically advanced, country would launch a preemptive strike against Iran to keep the Iranian government from developing a bomb.