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Predicting an Iranian Cyber Army

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With political tension at an all-time high between the US and Iran, every move that the country makes is being scrutinized by defense experts, including experts of cyber security. Norse, an American cyber security company, and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently teamed up to research the possibilities of a cyber-assault on the U.S. by the Islamic Republic of Iran. This type of cyber-assault would be made possible by the lifting of sanctions currently on Iran, which has been the main topic of quite a few political conversations lately.

Norse and AEI crafted a report to share with the U.S. public, but before doing so decided to share it with the U.S. military and intelligence community. This pre-release of the report was met with great amounts of skepticism and confusion. Robert M. Lee, an Air Force cyber warfare operations officer, was not on board with the public release of the document. He found it to be colloquial and largely exaggerated, stating “I specifically told them that they could not publish these claims in their upcoming AEI report because they were absolutely not true.”

One of the main problems with the report is that it relied on the use of “honeypots” to gather information, which are basically false targets for hackers. This form of data collection is not completely illegitimate, but it also isn’t solid enough to use as supporting data for the hypothesis: Iran is sending cyber warriors our way in the very near future. The SANS Institute, a prestigious education organization, criticized Norse and AEI’s report publicly for this method of research, but their criticism was met with a letter from Norse’s lawyer saying that the criticism gave rise to claims for false advertising, trade libel, and tortious interference with prospective economic relations. SANS Institute has since pulled its post from the web and is working on correcting the inaccurate statements.

Another complaint about the report is that it seems to make claims that are not substantially supported by research and data. Fred Kagan, co-author of the report and director of the Critical Threats Projects at AEI, says that the 120 gigabytes of technical data used to create the report have been made public. He also stated that, while the data has its limitations, it was never intended to provide evidence for retaliation. The report’s main objective is simply to present a strategic view of Iran’s capabilities in cyberspace, which is “blindingly obvious” in Kagan’s eyes due to the country’s intentions to do so in the past.