U.S. Cyberattack Crippled Iran's Capability to Target Tankers, Report Says

New York Times says the attack took place on June 20 in response to Iran's downing of U.S. drone

Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk, is seen at undisclosed place off the coast of Bandar Abbas, Iran August 22, 2019.

The U.S. carried out a cyberattack against Iran in order to take down a database used to disrupt shipping traffic in the Persian Gulf, the New York Times reported, citing senior American officials.

The Iranians are still working to recover critical information lost because of the operation, the report said, saying it took place last June 20. The database reportedly helped Tehran locate and target vessels in the Gulf.

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The attack targeting Iran Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence group was intended as retaliation for the downing of a U.S. military drone in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz by an Iranian surface-to-air missile in mid-June, an American official is quoted as saying, after the U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly ordered and then called off a military response against Tehran.

Cyberattacks are easily perceived as less aggressive actions than traditional military warfare partly because they do not cause visible damage or victims and often remain shrouded in secrecy.

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According to the report, the attack sparked a debate within the Trump administration about whether its costs outweighed its benefits.

The action exposed to the Iranians the kind of access American agents had into the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps system and communication networks, some of which have now been taken off line.

On the other hand, since the American operation took down the database, no tankers suffered from significant covert attacks in the Gulf, although Iran's Revolutionary Guards did seize a British tanker in July, causing tensions with London.

The report notes the attack did not elicit a response from Iran, whose cyber-activity against the U.S. remained at its usual intensity. The U.S. are also careful to keep cyber activity below the threshold of war, officials told the Times, describing the attack as part of an ongoing battle.