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BBC links Iran to cyber-war against Persian telly service

'Jammed satellite link, phone lines and networks'

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The BBC is linking a "sophisticated cyber-attack" against its Persian service to intimidation from the Iranian authorities.

BBC Director-General Mark Thompson will reveal today that a run of digital assaults accompanied the jamming of the Beeb's satellite feeds into Iran and automated calls against phone lines in London used by the Auntie's Persian service.

In an extract of a speech due to be given to the Royal Television Society, Thompson acknowledges the difficulty of attributing blame because the assault via compromised proxies could have been orchestrated from any country:

It is difficult, and may prove impossible, to confirm the source of these attacks, though attempted jamming of BBC services into Iran is nothing new and we regard the coincidence of these different attacks as self-evidently suspicious.

It now looks as if those who seek to disrupt or block BBC Persian may be widening their tactics.

Thompson is expected to talk about a systematic campaign to intimidate staff into leaving the BBC Persian service. In one such incident, the sister of a Beeb worker was arrested and held in solitary confinement by the Iranian authorities.

Some parts of the BBC were unable to access email and other internet services on 1 March, the BBC's online news service reports. However official corporate spokespeople declined to confirm whether or not this was the practical outcome of the reported cyber-attack.

A Reporters Without Borders Enemies of the Internet report out this week cites Iran for all sorts of transgressions against open internet access including censoring content, locking up internet users and blocking ports used by virtual private networks.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard created a "cyber army" that may have at least 2,400 members, according to one of the few estimates by US defence intelligence analysts. The unit is reportedly responsible for blocking opposition communications and tracking down opposition supporters as well as launching external attacks. Assaults on Israeli websites, a DNS hijack attack against Twitter and the infamous DigiNotar hack have been tracked to Iran.

Whether any of these assaults were carried out by military units or patriotic hackers remains unclear.

Ross Brewer, managing director at security tools vendor LogRhythm, commented: "Nation states are honing their cyber warfare and cyber espionage skills, and such activity can only be expected to increase. As a result, the accurate attribution of cyber attacks has never been more important."

He added: "Mark Thompson has highlighted the difficulty involved with this task, however, without confirmation of the source of attacks, inaccurate finger-pointing can and often does occur. When this happens between nation states, already-tense diplomatic conflicts can be inflamed and may even incite military aggression."

More security commentary on the cyber-attacks against the BBC's service can be found in a blog post by Graham Cluley of Sophos here. ®

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