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Satellites and the Middle East’s cyber wars

The du Samacom teleport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photograph courtesy of albawaba.com.
The du Samacom teleport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photograph courtesy of albawaba.com.

The latest round of cyber skirmishes that have erupted between Iranian and Saudi Arabian hackers is a timely reminder that Middle Eastern satellites and their operators are vulnerable to more sophisticated cyber attacks. ThorGroup’s Dr. John B. Sheldon explores this often discussed yet poorly understood threat to space systems.

On 25 May 2016 the website of the Iranian Statistical Centre and Registration Office was defaced by a Saudi Arabian hacker named Da3s. The defacement of this website consisted of a photograph of the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, an obvious reference to the bloody, eight-year long Iran-Iraq War in the 1980’s.

All too predictably, Iranian hacker groups responded in kind less than 24 hours later by defacing the websites of the Saudi Arabian General Authority for Statistics and the King Abdulaziz University, leaving a message that read: “Iranian Hackers Were Here. Hacked by Shahin.sh. Iran Security Team.”

While the tit-for-tat cyber exchanges between Iranian and Saudi hackers has continued ever since, these kinds of cyber attacks are an annoyance at worst. The damage caused is temporary and the worst impact is inconvenience and delay of everyday functions. So long as these kinds of cyber attacks are the work of individuals, or small groups of individuals, without government backing then it is very unlikely that they can cause significant damage.

Should the Iranian and Saudi governments become involved – even if by proxy – in these cyber exchanges by lending their technical and expert human resources, then it can be expected that the cyber attacks could become much more sophisticated, and as a result, far more damaging by attacking critical infrastructure.

Since satellites often provide the backbone for national and international telecommunication networks, and are also tools of immense political, economic, and cultural power, it is unavoidable to view them as a part of any country’s critical and national infrastructure.


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