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Cybersecurity in the Middle East

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JJuly 22, 2015, FBI Director James Comey attended The Aspen Security Forum and told its audience that there were “signs of increasing interest” to use cyberspace as a channel for exploiting national vulnerabilities. Sensational words, which worked to do as intended – reveal the United States as the target nation for hackers across the globe. Undeniably, eyes are on the United States to set the standard of what it means for a country to defend itself against the increasing amount of hackers that hide behind a wall of anonymity. After all, the stakes are high. Back in 2010, the former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell addressed Congress and said “we’re the most connected. We have the most to lose.” Six years later, the world continues to watch the United States as it scrambles to create a unified governance system that effectively protects its citizens from the threat that cyberspace poses. However, what seems to persistently evade the attention of mainstream media is the cyberwar that is already underway.

The infamous Doomsday clock remains a mere three minutes to midnight, metaphorically signifying how close the world is to global doom. Closest it’s been to midnight since 1984 and representing the summation of the world’s issues ranging from climate change to terrorism, it holds world leaders accountable for the state of peril the world seems to be propelling towards. The clock, in essence, is a way for us to understand the gravity of the changing geopolitical sphere. The cyberwar in the Middle East, in which numerous countries are implicated, plays an increasingly important role on how close the clock’s second hand gets to the hour mark.

It’s understandable why it’s so easy to turn a blind eye to the ever-increasing issues surrounding cyber security that are rampant in the Middle East. In essence, cyberwars are invisible. You don’t see the damage of cyberattacks as you do the wounded civilians keeling over in ransacked Syrian neighbourhoods. Cyberwars are quiet, they are silent, and unless you are the victim, you don’t feel its repercussions. Yet, this may change. Recent research by Symantec and Deloitte reveals that more than two thirds of organizations in the Middle East do not have the capabilities to protect themselves against sophisticated hacks. To add, 70% of regional IT decision-makers report that have a complete lack of confidence in their company’s cyber security policies.

This vulnerability is one that hackers across the Middle East have realized, have exploited, and is the basis of the increasing amount of attacks happening across nations within the area. 2016 began with the central defense and aviation website for Saudi Arabia’s Defense Ministry being taken down due to a hack. Iran was named a suspect, a country that houses the Iranian “Izz ad-Din al Qassam Cyber Fighters” and “Ajax Security Team” hacking groups that have been responsible for the 2012 bank hacks and 2013 Navy attacks respectively. As a matter of fact, since 2012, Iranian hackers have managed to attack oil and gas companies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and a recent study by the cybersecurity firm Norse found an 115 per cent increase in attacks launched from Iranian Internet protocol addresses from January 2014 to April 2015. The accounts of hacktivism, security breaches, and cyberattacks are countless and many. Iran’s Ministry of Defense website was defaced by a Saudi hacker in 2015, Israeli hacking group IDF-TEAM brought down both the Saudi Stock Exchange and the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange in 2012, there was an attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco in 2012 – the list goes on and on. What’s even more concerning is that terrorist groups have begun to partake in the action as well. A group of hackers claiming affiliation with ISIL took down the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Website and threatened its director in July of 2015. From hacks that are discerningly sophisticated to ones that are more amateur in nature, there is an increasing amount of activity on both ends of the spectrum.

In a period of history where nations are more interconnected than ever, technologically developing faster than ever, and are – whether they want to be or not – more dependent on each other than ever before, this cyberwar in the Middle East is crucial to the future of nations globally. When ISIL-affiliated hacking groups take down websites designed to defend Syrian Human Rights, it doesn’t just affect Syria but affects all of us. It allows these groups to assert their power and make a point to the other nations watching. It is another way to spread fear, perpetrate a violent agenda, and is essentially yet another way for terrorist groups to spread their reach. Ultimately, the cyberwar underway in the Middle East is an issue that puts systemic efficiency, security and safety at risk. Seeing as how the Middle East is such a central economic global player, the strength of that region and all of its countries ultimately affects the world as a whole.

However, there are positives to be spoken about and a future to be hopeful for. It is estimated that the value of Middle East’s cybersecurity sector will reach a value of $25 billion within the next 10 years. The sector is experiencing growth unforeseen in previous years. After all, the term ‘cyberspace’ was only officially coined in 1982, and the battlefields of cyberspace are still being defined and shaped. Countries no longer act as silos, and it is vital that the Middle East tightens its security as what happens in that region affects the globe as a whole.

Sarah Israr
Sarah Israr is a published writer and freelance journalist. Having completed an Honors Bachelor of Arts in Business and English Literature at the University of Toronto, she has developed a keen interest in technology, cybersecurity, and foreign policy. Her work as a reporter has been published in the South China Morning Post’s country business reports, and her literary pursuits have been recognized by the University of Toronto which awarded her the Sonny Ladoo Book Prize award in 2014. Trilingual, and having lived in three continents by the age of ten, she is an avid traveler and is infinitely passionate about ethical consumption and sustainable change.

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