According to a first-of-its-kind report by America's NSA and the UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), Russian hackers hacked Iranian hackers and, masquerading as the hacked hackers, attacked targets in nearly three dozen countries.
This seems to be a dramatic escalation in the hacker wars. Paul Chichester, NSCS's Director of Operations, did not mince words when describing the attack:
We have never seen this done to the level of sophistication that we are seeing here. It’s unique in the complexity and scale and sophistication. It’s actually really hard masquerading [as another entity].
Pretending to be Iranian hackers, the Russian hackers targeted military organizations, universities, government agencies, and scientific organizations across the world. Organizations in the Middle East seem to have been prime targets.
Hackers wars are not new. Chinese intelligence has repurposed NSA cyber tools to attack private companies and government agencies in Europe and Asia. Using some of the same tools, hackers have targeted and crippled computer systems in Baltimore, Dallas, and other American cities.
What's new, though, is a darker black hole of accountability. NSA can trace the use of its tools to Chinese intelligence. That becomes much more difficult when the Chinese hack the Americans – then the Russians hack the Chinese, and the Iranians hack the Russians. Each new link in this never-ending daisy chain makes prevention and retaliation increasingly difficult.
Cybersecurity can be confusing, so let's use a real-world analogy.
Imagine if a thousand witnesses see Bill shoot Tim. In normal times, Bill would be arrested, charged, and sentenced for shooting Tim.
But what happens if Bill was not actually the person who shot Tim?
Imagine if, instead, the person who shot Tim was just someone who looked, talked, and walked exactly like Bill.
This shooter – call him Vlad – would be sipping a White Russian while poor ol' Bill is stuck turning big rocks into little rocks.
Sometimes fantasy becomes reality. Mission Impossible would like to have a word.