Cyber Technology: the Weapon of Choice

Cyber Conference
By Arthur Hayes

Cyber technologies have become deeply embedded into modern life within the last two decades. For the vast majority of uses these are benevolent but for states eager to censor content and restrict access, they face the challenge of staying one step ahead of their citizens. The British government recently hosted an international conference in London in which the future of the Internet was debated. British and American delegations used the conference to take a strong line supporting online freedom of speech and to criticise governments, such as China and Russia, who censor online content. David Cameron insisted that “governments must not use cyber security as an excuse for censorship”.

The conference highlighted the fact that states are struggling to keep pace with malicious and potentially hostile developments in cyber technology and the multitude of ways in which the Internet is utilized. The scale of the problem was recently highlighted by the Director of Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), who recently stated “20,000 malicious emails enter the British government’s networks every month”. While many of these are relatively harmless phishing scams, others are more sophisticated attempts to conduct industrial espionage. These attacks originate from solitary hackers, organised crime syndicates and foreign governments, although the anonymous nature of the internet means it could be a mixture of all three.

On 2 November, The Times of London reported on a case in which Iranian hackers intend to occupy a “virtual embassy” that the US plans to launch later in the year. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced in Washington that the online embassy will provide information on American education programmes and visa requirements and aims to assist potential Iranian students avoid Iranian government restrictions preventing them from gaining access to education within the US. Although the nature of the "occupation" was not made clear, hackers could overload the embassy’s website with requests for information, preventing it from functioning. Iran already appears to have the capacity to carry out such attacks. The website of the popular Dubai based satellite channel, Farsil, was attacked by a previously unknown entity calling itself the “Iranian Cyber Army” who have also attacked the social media website Twitter, the Voice of America website, and the Chinese search engine Baidu over the last two years.

The Iranian state has already used technology to stifle internal dissent and attack opposition forces, a phenomenon that only began to be widely reported in the western media after the disputed Iranian presidential elections in 2009. Opponents of the regime are more frequently reporting upon being detained by the Iranian authorities, intercepted copies of their telecommunications and email accounts are being presented to them by their interrogators.

Three European companies, Ericsson AB from Sweden, Creativity Software Ltd from the UK and Adaptive Mobile Security Ltd based in the Irish Republic stand accused of supplying the equipment that may have made this possible. Ericsson in 2009 confirmed that it had sold a mobile phone positioning centre for customer billing services to Iran’s second largest mobile phone provider, MTN Irancell Telecomm Services Co. Creativity Software Ltd are alleged to have supplied a system that monitors cell phone locations, although the company have declined to go beyond confirming that Irancell is a client. Adaptive Mobile had proposed in conjunction with Ericsson to supply a system that could be used to filter, block and store text and mobile phone calls. While sanctions against the Iranian nuclear programme may be difficult to implement, the dual-use nature of telecommunications equipment would make attempting to sanction offensive cyber-war capabilities next to impossible.

Although the Iranian state has proved adept at utilizing this technology, Iranian citizens have turned mobile phones and blogs into equally effective cyber-weapons. Seventy per cent of Iranian households have at least one mobile phone as opposed to less than twenty per cent who have Internet access. Much of the public disorder and the resulting states response that occurred during and after the 2009 Iranian Presidential elections were seen by the outside world via mobile phone coverage and internet blogs, illustrating the scale of the problem for the Iranian state. The same technology that allows the Iranian state to monitor and record dissident behaviour is being utilized by Iranian citizens to avoid detection and make their voices heard. The rapid developments within telecommunications mean that whoever is able to stay one step ahead in terms of technology and adaptation retains the upper hand. Cyber space may be the arena where this kind of intra-state arms race plays itself out.


Arthur Hayes is a Senior Counter-Terrorism Officer with over 20 years’ experience. He has taken part in major counter-terrorism operations and intelligence gathering against a diverse range of targets, including Irish Republicans, Middle Eastern and domestic Islamic extremists.  


21 November 2011


Related Article: 

Nick Watts, UK Cyber Strategy