Virus that struck Mideast energy firms was worst cyberattack yet, Panetta says

 

NEW YORK — A computer virus that wiped crucial business data from tens of thousands of computers at Middle Eastern energy companies over the summer marked the most destructive cyberattack on the private sector to date, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Thursday night in a major speech intended to warn of the growing perils in cyberspace.

Panetta did not say who was believed to be behind the so-called Shamoon virus. But he said the malware, which rendered permanently inoperable more than 30,000 computers at the Saudi Arabian state oil company Aramco and did similar damage to the systems of Ras Gas in Qatar, represented a "significant escalation of the cyberthreat."

Such attacks have "renewed concerns about still more destructive scenarios that could unfold," he said in an address to business executives in New York. He asked them to "imagine the impact an attack like this would have on your company."

Panetta's remarks on the Middle East incidents were the first from any administration official acknowledging them. In the attack on Aramco, the virus replaced crucial system files with an image of a burning U.S. flag, he said. It also overwrote the files with "garbage" data, he said.

The Middle East cyber-incidents have prompted great concern inside national security agencies, with the military's Cyber Command adding personnel to monitor for the possibility of follow-up attacks. U.S. intelligence officials and Middle Eastern diplomats have said they believe Iran was behind the incidents, but other experts have expressed skepticism.

"It's clear a number of state actors have grown their cyber-capabilities in recent years," said a senior defense official who was not authorized to speak for the record. "We're concerned about Russia and China, and we're concerned about growing Iranian capabilities as well."

Although there has been debate over the roles of various government agencies in cyberspace, Panetta made clear that it would be the Defense Department's responsibility to defend the nation in that realm.

Under new rules of engagement for cyberwarfare, he said, the Pentagon's role would extend to defending private-sector computers against a major attack. The conditions under which the rules would trigger a response are stringent, and must rise to the level of an "armed attack" that threatens significant physical destruction or loss of life, senior defense officials said.

Those cyber-rules, which represent the most comprehensive revision in seven years, are being finalized now, Panetta said. For the first time, military cyber-specialists would be able to immediately block malware outside the Pentagon's networks in an effort to defend the private sector against an imminent, significant physical attack, The Washington Post has reported. At present, such action requires special permission from the president.

Panetta said that "foreign cyber-actors are probing America's critical infrastructure networks. They are targeting the computer control systems that operate chemical, electricity and water plants" and transportation systems. He said the government knows of "specific instances where intruders have successfully gained access to these control systems" and that the intruders are trying to create advanced tools to attack the systems to cause panic, destruction and death.

Panetta outlined destructive scenarios that worry U.S. officials: an aggressor nation or extremist group gaining control of critical switches in order to derail trains loaded with passengers or lethal chemicals; contamination of the water supply, or a shutdown of the power grid across large parts of the country.

The most destructive attack, he said, would be one launched against several critical systems at once in combination with a physical attack on the country.

"The collective result," he said, "could be a 'cyber-Pearl Harbor': an attack that would cause physical destruction and loss of life, paralyze and shock the nation, and create a profound new sense of vulnerability."

Panetta also issued a warning to would-be attackers, saying the Pentagon is better able now to identify who is behind an attack. "Potential aggressors should be aware that the United States has the capacity to locate them and hold them accountable for actions that harm America or its interests," he said.

The department has also developed the capability to conduct operations to counter threats to national security in cyberspace, he said, and would do so in accordance with international law.

Taking offensive action would be the role of the Cyber Command, launched in 2010. Panetta noted that the Pentagon is looking at ways to strengthen the organization, including streamlining its chain of command. A recommendation by senior military leaders to elevate it to full unified command status is under review, officials said.

Panetta, addressing the Business Executives for National Security, said cyberwarfare is now a major topic in nearly all his bilateral meetings with foreign counterparts, including in China a few weeks ago. China, which the United States has accused of being a top actor in cyber-economic espionage, is rapidly improving its capabilities, he said.

He reiterated the administration's call for legislation to establish routine cyber-information sharing between the public and private sectors, and to set security standards for companies.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick