Iran cyberattack sought to raise chlorine levels in Israel’s water supply, report says

A Western source says Iran’s April cyberattack could have led to thousands of Israelis being sickened. Iran denies the report.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

A report by British newspaper The Financial Times on Sunday revealed that Iran attempted to raise chlorine levels in Israeli water during a cyberattack on the Jewish state’s water supply system.

In April, workers at a municipal water supply station in central Israel received a warning from their computer system that pumps were malfunctioning, turning off and on when they weren’t commanded to do so.

Investigators discovered that Iranian-written code, after passing through servers around the world in an attempt to hide its origins, breached the water supply’s security and penetrated the system’s software. The code was attempting to raise the chlorine levels in water flowing to Israeli homes.

If the attack had succeeded, elevated chlorine levels in the residential water supply could have led to thousands of Israelis being sickened.

A Western official speaking to The Financial Times said the attack “was more sophisticated than they [Israel] initially thought. It was close to successful, and it’s not fully clear why it didn’t succeed.”

Iranian officials denied responsibility for the attack. Alireza Miryousefi, head spokesman of Iran’s delegation to the UN, said in a public statement that Iran’s cyberactivities “are purely defensive and protective.”

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In retaliation for the attempted water supply attack, then Defense Minister Naftali Bennett allegedly ordered a cyberattack on Iran’s Shahid Rajaee Port.

The port, located in the southern city of Bandar Abbas, is one of the country’s most important commercial centers, responsible for almost 50 percent of Iran’s foreign trade.

Due to international sanctions on Iran that have plunged the country’s economy into disarray, it’s difficult to determine how much the attack disrupted activity at the port. A Western official speaking to the Financial Times said he was shown evidence that the attack led to traffic jams and long lines of trucks waiting to enter the port.

The Iranian attack on Israel’s water supply and Israel’s subsequent attack on Iran’s port mark the first time the countries have targeted each other’s civilian infrastructure.

While neither Iran nor Israel will officially acknowledge being the victim or perpetrator of cyberattacks, these events signal an escalation in the long-simmering tensions between the two countries.

“If the bad guys had succeeded in their plot we would now be facing, in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, very large damage to the civilian population and a lack of water and even worse than that,” said Yigal Unna, head of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate during a speech at the CybertechLive Asia conference.

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Cyber winter is coming and coming even faster than I suspected. We are just seeing the beginning — we will remember this as a changing point in the history of modern cyber warfare.”