Israel Girds Itself for Cyber Warfare

Israelis have shown themselves to be experts in "counter-insurgency" against cyber terrorist attacks.

Gedalyah Reback ,

Netanyahu at the Cyber Conference
Netanyahu at the Cyber Conference
Photo: GPO

The threat of cyber terrorism is not new, but it has become more sophisticated. What defines cyber 'terrorism' as opposed to warfare might also be legally disputed since there is no concrete definition of what is fair in the cyber world.

In recent years, Israel has been the target of hacking campaigns by various groups going by the moniker Anonymous, operating under campaigns like #OpIsrael or #OpGaza. It is not known if Israel's well-known enemies might be behind the latest threat.

The Institute for National Security Studies warned yesterday that a group called AnonGhost was planning an “Electronic Holocaust” on April 7th in cyber-attacks against the Jewish State.

"It’s very hard to prove, but we do see some kind with terrorist organizations as you mentioned as well as state sponsors of terror behind these events."

#OpGaza - named for the Twitter hashtag promoting the campaign – was a spontaneous campaign by hackers to retaliate against Operation Protective Edge. But #OpIsrael was planned in advance, with an unknown number of hackers taking part. Even if terrorist organizations or governments are involved, their successes have been miniscule thus far.

“It’s not the first time this sort of campaign happened. The last time (though) didn’t see any strategic attacks on critical infrastructure. There was the defacement of websites and sewing fear among Israeli citizens.”

The real danger of hacking secure networks or interfaces belonging to any government ministries is minimized by government efforts to defend against such attacks. When asked if the decentralized nature of Israeli bureaucracy – where some ministries have their own networks not attached to those of other ministries – Cohen says that this was an issue in the past that has been ameliorated.

“All of the Israelis ministries are protected by a custom system. They were less protected during the attack last year; the Ministry of Education was hit hard. But it’s mostly safe at this point. The last attack only shut down one vulnerable site for a few minutes.”

At this point, the threat is mostly to Israeli civilians, mainly soft targets who might be attached to larger companies.

“Last week, the Israeli government announced the establishment of new cyber security authority that is supposed to protect the civilian side of the internet. Until then, it is less protected. “

When asked if the major threats included attacks against credit-card institutions, Cohen confirmed that was the main concern, but it is was not at all clear if attacks would be successful.

“The last two attacks purported to have stolen credit card information and released it on the internet. But it was recycled information. It was already publicly accessible.”

Cohen asserts that the main benefit of cyber warfare with Israel that hackers can reasonably hope for is using psychological warfare, though its effects might feel devastating for those who experience or see the vandalism and hacking often associated with these attacks.

“There’s a lot of psychological warfare via defacement of websites. If they can get to a large website and put banners up against Israel on the site, that can create a large (amount of) damage against citizens’ morale.”

“A simple attack could harm a lot,” explained Cohen, who referenced a 2013 attack that had devastating short-term effects on American stocks. “The Syrian Electronic Army hijacked the Associated Press Twitter account and made people think there had been a bombing at the White House. People panicked and dumped billions of dollars in stocks.”

Israel however is assumed to have a tremendous defensive and even offensive capability in cyber warfare. Cohen cites the joint American-Israeli operation that infected Iranian nuclear systems with the Stuxnet virus.

In terms of Israel’s offensive capabilities otherwise, Cohen says that if a country is known to have a strong defense against these attacks, it is assumed to have a reciprocally good offense.

But the power of Israel’s counter-offensive power on the web might lay in the hands of its civilians, not its government.

“During the war (Operation Protective Edge), many Israeli citizens struck back against hackers who attacked Israel. They penetrated Skype, even showing some of the faces of the people who were behind the attacks.”

Israeli hackers humiliated several anonymous hackers whose IP addresses made them traceable, letting hackers use applications like Skype to hack computer cameras. The Israeli hackers subsequently took photos of the #OpGaza hackers, broadcasting them across the web.

Given the nascent nature of cyber warfare, Cohen says there is no definition of a “war crime” in cyberspace, though it has been debates. When asked if governments might be held accountable for citizens’ private initiatives against other countries, he said that the matter had not gone beyond debate – yet.

“There’s a big question in international law. For now, there are discussions to create some mechanism for sharing information (on cyber terrorism), but there are no bilateral or multilateral discussions.”