Cyberattacks can force organizations to change all sorts of things about their operations and cyber policies, but completely cutting off another country? This could be a first.
Albania has announced it will be severing all diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran after a cyberattack in July targeted the government's digital infrastructure and public services.
Prime Minister Edi Rama shared in a video message that the "heavy cyberattack" aimed to destroy critical systems, but the attack failed in its purpose. The damages were considered minimal compared to what could have been achieved by the state-sponsored threat actor.
He also sent an official notice to the Embassy of Iran, asking that all diplomatic representatives leave the nation of Albania within 24 hours.
Prime Minister Rama said this in his message:
"This extreme response, one that is unwanted but totally forced on us, is fully proportionate to the gravity and risk of the cyberattack that threatened to paralyse public services, erase digital systems and hack into State records, steal Government intranet electronic communication and stir chaos and insecurity in the country.
Failure of this massive attack on our country thanks to the resilience of the systems we have built and the assistance of specialised groups who fought on our side is not the end of the cyber threat, but the clear proof that, thanks to its digital development, Albania is part of the large map of the battle for cyber security.
The good news, however, is that we know what to do and how to do it to prevent anyone from harming us, just like we know that we will do the right things in the right way, also because we have the right partners on our side."
The specialized groups that Rama references are likely NATO allies, such as the United States.
A statement from a White House spokesperson says the U.S. "strongly condemns" the cyberattack against Albania and that it will be taking "further action to hold Iran accountable for actions that threaten the security of a U.S. ally and set a troubling precedent for cyberspace."
The spokesperson added that U.S. government officials have been on the ground in Albania with top private sector partners to assist the country in its recovery for many weeks.
Both Albanian and U.S. governments say they concluded "with indisputable evidence" that the attack was sponsored by the Iranian government.
The White House statement continues:
"Iran's conduct disregards norms of responsible peacetime State behavior in cyberspace, which includes a norm on refraining from damaging critical infrastructure that provides services to the public.
Albania views impacted government networks as critical infrastructure. Malicious cyber activity by a State that intentionally damages critical infrastructure or otherwise impairs its use and operation to provide services to the public can have cascading domestic, regional, and global effects; pose an elevated risk of harm to the population; and may lead to escalation and conflict."
While the cyberattack ultimately caused little harm to Albania, there was certainly malicious intent behind the attack from Iran. Other countries, like Russia and China, are probably watching closely to see how NATO allies respond in this situation.
Last year, NATO announced that cyberattacks could be treated as military attacks. World leaders affirmed that an attack against one ally is an attack against all allies, regardless if it came in the form of a bullet or a phishing email.
When NATO announced this, the intent was to deter Russia from attacking any critical infrastructure in Western countries as the invasion of Ukraine began. Now, a situation like this between Albania and Iran might involve the military of a world super power, though unlikely.
Even so, does a cyberattack warrant completely cutting off diplomatic relations with another country? There's a chance that this was just the last straw that broke the camel's back.
Albania and Iran have experienced increased tensions between the two nations since 2014, after Albania accepted roughly 3,000 refugees of an exiled group that opposed the Iranian government.
So, perhaps this was the perfect opportunity to cut ties. Regardless, it's a fascinating scenario to watch unfold as cybersecurity intersects with geopolitics.
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