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Aramco cyber attack intel declassified to show threat to private industry

Rosenbach, Weatherford

U.S. intelligence on the devastating malware attack that crippled the Saudi Arabian oil company Aramco’s computers last August was declassified to illustrate the looming threat of cyber assault to private industry, said a Department of Defense official.

The attack, carried out by a piece of malware called Shamoon, reportedly destroyed over 50,000 of the oil giant’s computers, wiping away email, documents, spreadsheets and other files, replacing them with an image of a burning U.S. flag.

The attack was first revealed in a speech by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in mid-October when he called it “a significant escalation of the cyber threat” that could endanger U.S. power, water and transportation systems. “All told, the Shamoon virus was probably the most destructive attack that the private sector has seen to date,” he said.

The DoD got the information on the attack declassified to show private U.S. companies that the Cyber threat landscape had suffered a tectonic shift, said Eric Rosenbach, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Cyber policy at the Department of Defense. “Aramco was a foreshadowing,” he said on a panel discussion at the SINET D.C. Showcase on Oct. 25 in Washington on DHS, DoD and private industry Cyber responsibilities. “It marked a change. It showed more [Cyber] hygiene was needed. Several thousand U.S. companies had similar hygeine,” he said.  

“We wanted to put the challenge back on the private sector,” he said later in the discussion.

In the days after the Aramco attack, the Department of Homeland Security was quickly in close contact with the companies in its 18 critical industry sectors to insure they hadn’t been affected or attacked, said Mark Weatherford, DHS deputy under secretary for Cyber security, National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) speaking on the same panel. “We’ve been afraid of something like that,” he said.

Weatherford said his agency emphasized to infrastructure companies to evaluate how a Shamoon attack would look in their industry sectors. “This was a devastating attack. We’re looking to raise the bar in preparation for another,” he said.


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