Taking the battle to cyberspace
Taking the battle to cyberspace Reuters

The IDF and Israel Security Agency (ISA or Shin Bet) prevented a major cyber attack on Israel during Operation Protective Edge, military officials say. 

According to the IDF's official blog, the unprecedented attack was carried out by anti-Israel hackers "from all over the world", aided by the Iranian government. The coordinated attack was timed to coincide with Al Quds (Jerusalem) Day, the yearly anti-Israel event organised worldwide by the Iranian regime.

The IDF's cyber defense division was drafted in to mount a defense as hackers mounted a systematic attempt to take down Israeli websites. It was joined by the Shin Bet security services, which recently revealed it had set up an elite cyber-defense unit to defend against precisely such an eventuality.

The incident underscored how at the same time as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are improving their rocket and tunnel capabilities, Israeli cyberspace also faces a real threat from an increasingly innovative enemy.

"It wasn’t like this in previous operations," said Col. N, who heads the army's cyber defense division. "For the first time, there was an organized cyber defense effort alongside combat operations in the field. This was a new reality."

While previous cyber attacks were either the work of lone individuals or relatively amateurish hacker collectives, this latest attempt was far more professional.

"Today, they’re organizing much more quickly, and it takes them much less time to carry out powerful strikes," Col. N added. "During Operation Protective Edge, we saw attacks on a greater scale and on a more sophisticated level. A significant amount of thought and investment stood behind the attacks we saw."

And possibly indicating an even deeper level of coordination with terrorist networks on the ground, he described how the cyber escalation ebbed and flowed in-tandem with an increase in physical hostilities.

"There was a direct connection between the progression of the fighting and cyber attacks. Once the IDF began its ground operation, there was a surge in the number of attacks and their level of sophistication."

Ultimately, the attack was repelled by Israel's own elite units of cyber-defenders, but Col. N. warned this would certainly not be the last such attack. 

He outlined several nightmare scenarios which the IDF was preparing for, including attempts to hack the military's computer system to gain control of its own armed drones and use them to attack Israel. Hackers could also seek to shut down or disrupt the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange or the Israeli electrical grid.

Major terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, together with Iran, were already showing an increasing interest in the field of cyber terror. And as the IDF becomes increasingly adept at dealing with physical threats such as rockets, its enemies are seeking new avenues of attack.

"There is a significant amount of development in the cyber field," Colonel N. explained. "This is a field that [these groups] are already involved in … and all of these groups share information."

 "I won’t be surprised if, next time, we meet [terrorists] in the cyber dimension," he said.