Iran-led state-sponsored attacks remain a major threat to Middle East stability

Microsoft linked Iranian hackers to cyber attacks that targeted thousands of people in more than 200 companies

FILE- In this Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017 file photo, Stuart Davis, a director at one of FireEye's subsidiaries speaks to journalists about the techniques of Iranian hacking, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)
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State-sponsored cyber attacks are aiming to disrupt the economic and social stability of regional economies, cyber experts say.

Cyber security firm FireEye said state-sponsored attacks have become more sophisticated in the last five years.

"The number of such attacks is highest in the Middle East, compared to the rest of the world. This region is surrounded by many friends as well as enemies… trying to disturb the geopolitics and financial stability," Mohammed Abukhater, vice president of FireEye for Middle East and Africa, told The National.

In the past, FireEye has unveiled many ATP groups coming from North Korea, China and Iran, targeting Middle East nations.

Industry experts said state-sponsored actors are using malware and malicious campaigns to attempt to steal intellectual property, carry out spying activities and collect confidential information to prepare for offensive operations.

“Earlier they used to be limited to areas like aerospace, but now they are targeting research centres, educational institutes, oil and gas and various government entities. They are also tracking the developments of ministries like foreign affairs and defence,” said MrAbukhater.

In its report released in June, DarkMatter - a cyber security company in the UAE with government contracts - said most of the state-sponsored attacks target critical infrastructure and these breaches are widespread and often undetected.

“Cyber attacks do not only affect businesses but also governments that can have even more disastrous consequences,” said Maher Yamout, senior security researcher at Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab.

“The consequences could impact the country’s complete digital infrastructure and lead to disruption in government operations, critical infrastructure as well as leading to national financial crisis and security problems,” he added.

In July, tech giant Microsoft said it had notified up to 10,000 users globally that they had been targeted by state-sponsored hackers in the past year. Businesses and big corporations were the main targets, while about one in ten victims were consumers’ personal accounts.

In a report published in March, Microsoft linked Iranian hackers to cyber attacks that targeted thousands of people in more than 200 companies, including some in Saudi Arabia.

Cyber security remains a significant concern for Gulf countries and they are paying attention to their defence budgets to curb Iranian influence in the region.

Earlier state-sponsored actors were stealing only basic information but now they are building long-term espionage campaigns

Government and defence sectors in the UAE and Saudi Arabia - the two largest economies in the Arabian Gulf - will be the main targets, as Iran seeks geopolitical prominence, according to a report released by California-based cyber security technology company CrowdStrike in March.

Governments and businesses need to be aware of the threat and be prepared to deal with that, said Rawad Sarieddine, regional head of CrowdStrike in Dubai.

In January, an Iranian group called APT39, which was mainly targeting the telecoms industry in the Middle East, was exposed by FireEye.

“Earlier state-sponsored actors were stealing only basic information but now they are building long-term espionage campaigns, installing sensors in secure networks and using them whenever possible,” said Mr Abukhater.