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U.S. Cyberweapons, Used Against Iran and North Korea, Are a Disappointment Against ISIS: New York Times Report

Posted By - DynamicCISO,

This news is re-posted from New York Times

America’s fast-growing ranks of secret cyber warriors have in recent years blown up nuclear centrifuges in Iran and turned to computer code and electronic warfare to sabotage North Korea’s missile launches, with mixed results.

But since they began training their arsenal of cyber weapons on a more elusive target, internet use by the Islamic State, the results have been a consistent disappointment, American officials say. The effectiveness of the nation’s arsenal of cyber weapons hit its limits, they have discovered, against an enemy that exploits the Internet largely to recruit, spread propaganda and use encrypted communications, all of which can be quickly reconstituted after American “mission teams” freeze their computers or manipulate their data.

It has been more than a year since the Pentagon announced that it was opening a new line of combat against the Islamic State, directing Cyber Command, then six years old, to mount computer-network attacks. The mission was clear: Disrupt the ability of the Islamic State to spread its message, attract new adherents, pay fighters and circulate orders from commanders.

But in the aftermath of the recent attacks in Britain and Iran claimed by the Islamic State, it has become clear that recruitment efforts and communications hubs reappear almost as quickly as they are torn down. This is prompting officials to rethink how cyber warfare techniques, first designed for fixed targets like nuclear facilities, must be refashioned to fight terrorist groups that are becoming more adept at turning the web into a weapon.

“In general, there was some sense of disappointment in the overall ability for cyber operations to land a major blow against ISIS,” or the Islamic State said Joshua Geltzer, who was the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council until March. “This is just much harder in practice than people think. It’s almost never as cool as getting into a system and thinking you’ll see things disappear for good.”

Even one of the rare successes against the Islamic State belongs at least in part to Israel, which was America’s partner in the attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Top Israeli cyber operators penetrated a small cell of extremist bombmakers in Syria months ago, the officials said. That was how the United States learned that the terrorist group was working to make explosives that fooled airport X-ray machines and other screening by looking exactly like batteries for laptop computers.

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