A Hacking Spree Against Iran Spills Out Into the Physical World

In April 2020 hackers infiltrated the systems of an Israeli water-pumping station and tampered with equipment. Individual pumps started malfunctioning as officials scrambled to keep water supplies flowing for millions of people. After the incident, which has been linked to Iran, officials said the damage could have been much worse: They suspect the attack was intended to poison water supplies by increasing chlorine levels. Weeks later, hackers targeted an Iranian port in an apparent act of retaliation.

“This was the first time that a nation responded immediately through the cyber medium for a cyberattack,” says Lotem Finkelstein, director of threat intelligence and research at Israeli cybersecurity company Check Point. The attacks, he says, marked the start of a new wave of hacking against infrastructure in the region, which has disrupted millions of lives.

In the past several months, those strikes have escalated. Fuel supply systems, railway controls, and an airline in Iran have all faced attacks. At the same time, hackers have posted the personal information of a million Israeli LGBTQ dating app users, and exposed certain details about the Israeli army. The skirmishes—which have included physical sabotage and the destruction of facilities—are the latest moves in the decades-long hostilities between Iran and Israel. They’re now spilling further into shadowy acts of digital espionage and disruption.

The attacks worry experts, who say the infrastructure that underpins large parts of daily life should be off-limits for state-sponsored hackers. The US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has set out 16 crucial sectors—including energy, health care, dams, and food—that it believes should be out of the scope of state-sponsored hackers. The attacks also come as Iran restarts nuclear weapons negotiations with world superpowers.

“It seems that this is a case of different actors trying to demonstrate their capabilities in order to basically establish a new kind of balance of power in the region,” says Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, who adds there has been greater diplomacy between countries in…