US, Middle Eastern allies include cyber collaboration in Abraham Accords

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The U.S. and its allies in the Middle East and North Africa announced on Tuesday that they are broadening the Abraham Accords — a 2020 agreement to normalize diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab countries — to include cybersecurity.

The expansion, which is still in the works, will include increasing the sharing of information on cyber threats and potentially adding tabletop exercises, The Washington Post reported

Rob Silvers, Department of Homeland Security under secretary for strategy, policy and plans, told the Post that the expansion builds on existing cyber collaboration between the U.S., Israel and the United Arab Emirates and will also include Bahrain and Morocco.

“We’ll be meeting as a group to chart out how we can deepen our work on cyberdefense,” Silvers said. “Our countries face common cyber challenges — obviously, we all face cybercrime, ransomware and so forth.”

The announcement is the latest cyber collaboration between the U.S. and the Middle East. 

Last year, the U.S. Department of Treasury and the Israeli Ministry of Finance announced a bilateral agreement that would formalize and enhance the cybersecurity partnership between the two countries.  

In the agreement, both nations pledged to share information related to cyber threats targeting the financial sector, train staff in the cybersecurity field and conduct cross-border cybersecurity exercises.

The Treasury’s bilateral agreement followed President Biden’s trip to the Middle East in July, during which he pledged to expand and strengthen cyber cooperation with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Experts The Hill spoke to at the time said the move was likely a response to the rising digital threat from Iran — a common rival of all three countries.

Though not yet at the level of Israel, Iran has proved capable of launching an array of cyberattacks, ranging from website defacement and distributed denial-of-service attacks to ransomware and cyber espionage, experts said.

Last year, the FBI said it thwarted a cyberattack in 2021 that was intended to disrupt the network of the Boston Children’s Hospital. FBI Director Christopher Wray blamed Iranian-backed hackers for the attempted attack.

“Iran is a dangerous, destabilizing actor across the region,” Silvers told The Post. “We have seen their attacks on U.S. targets as well as targets across the Middle East.”

Aside from Iran, Israel has also drawn criticism for allowing one of its leading cyber intelligence firms, NSO Group, to sell spyware tools to foreign governments that then use them to spy on dissidents, political rivals, journalists and human right activists.

The backlash against NSO Group’s spyware tool, known as Pegasus, led the U.S. Department of Commerce to blacklist the company in 2021.

Silvers said that the Biden administration has condemned the illegal use of spyware.

“This administration has consistently condemned the use of spyware and sanctioned spyware developers for infringing on human rights and free expression, and we are candid with our partners when we have concerns,” Silvers said. 

“That said, there is a long history of defense and security cooperation between the U.S. and partners in the region, and it is important that we work together against shared cyberthreats on critical infrastructure,” he added.

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