Israel suspected of hacking Iran nuclear talks

Israel suspected of hacking Iran nuclear talks
Analysis: With a long history of cyber espionage, Israel is at the centre of suspicion after a computer virus was found in hotels used to host Iran nuclear talks.
3 min read
11 June, 2015
Kaspersky Lab found the computer virus in hotels hosting Iran talks [AFP]
An Israeli deputy minister has dismissed as baseless reports that her country was connected to a computer virus used to hack venues used during international talks on Iran's nuclear programme.

The Russia-based Kaspersky Lab company said on Wednesday it found the spyware in three European hotels that hosted negotiations involving Iran and six world powers - the US, UK, Germany, France, Russia, and China - and also on the company's own computers.

Both Kaspersky and US security company Symantec said the virus shared some characteristics with previously discovered espionage software called Duqu, which security experts believe was developed by Israel.

Kaspersky said the effect of the virus on talks was not known at this stage, but it is possible that infected computers were able to control cameras, microphones and phone systems within the hotel to spy on the talks.

Experts said that Duqu 2's sophistication was high enough to suggest a state-level operation, rather than an opportunist attempt to gather information on the talks.

Israeli government officials initially declined to comment, but on Thursday the deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, flatly denied her country was involved: "The international reports of Israeli involvement in the matter are baseless," she told Army Radio.

"What is much more important is that we prevent a bad agreement where at the end of the day we find ourselves with a Iranian nuclear umbrella," she said.

     Israel has been denied access to information on the negotiations with Iran, a fact that has infuriated the government.

Israel has been denied access to information on the negotiations with Iran, a fact that has infuriated the government.

Israel raised suspicions it was spying on the talks when the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said in February that his country knew the content of a proposed deal despite the details being withheld by the US.

"The Iranians of course know the details of that proposal and Israel does too," he said. "So when we say that the current proposal would lead to a bad deal, a dangerous deal, we know what we're talking about."

The Wall Street Journal reported a month later that US counter-espionage officers were warning US officials involved in the talks that Israeli spies were trying to steal information.

The US warnings and Netanyahu's statement does not prove Israel was behind the Duqu 2 attack, but it fits a pattern of allegations that Israel is using hacking and electronic espionage against Iran and the talks.

In 2009, Israel was suspected of releasing a virus, Stuxnet, into computers controlling Iran's nuclear programme. The virus, a so-called "worm", targeted Iran's centrifuges, which are used to enrich nuclear material.

The New York Times reported that the virus was able to damage or destroy up to a fifth of Iran's centrifuges by making them spin out of control, while also fooling the controllers into thinking they were running as normal.

Iran has never commented on the damage caused, but UN inspectors found in 2009 that almost a thousand centrifuges at its Natanz plant alone were out of service.

The Economist said after the attack that Stuxnet's sophistication suggested it was the work of a "well-financed team working for a government, rather than a group of rogue hackers trying to steal secrets or cause trouble. America and Israel are the obvious suspects".

An attack like Stuxnet had been predicted. Scott Borg, the director of the US Cyber-Consequences Unit, told Reuters that Israel might choose to launch a cyber rather than a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

"To judge by my interaction with Israeli experts in various international forums, Israel can definitely be assumed to have advanced cyber-attack capabilities."

A retired Israeli security cabinet member also told Reuters: "A key Iranian vulnerability is in its on-line information. We have acted accordingly."

What Israel might gain from spying on hotels is unknown - but for a government which has placed the threat of an Iranian nuclear umbrella at the centre of its foreign policy, while being excluded from any negotiations to control it, it would be fair to say that any glimmer of information is better than being alone in the dark.