Viruses instead of missiles
The prospect of cyber war on Israel is gaining ground as a matter of high concern among Tel Aviv's security and strategic officials, writes Saleh Al-Naami
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Over the past week, the hotline at Israel's Central Bank was inundated by an avalanche of phone calls from tens of thousands of Israelis who panicked after it was disclosed that their credit card information was hacked by someone who claims to be a Saudi citizen living in Mexico. The compromised accounts are estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, making it a nightmare scenario for many Israelis inside and outside the country.
Decision-makers in Israel, however, were not as concerned about these citizens losing their savings as they were worried that the hacking was part of a cyber war launched by a hostile party aimed at causing maximal damage to Israel's national security. Israeli officials refuted claims that this was merely a "Saudi hacker" but asserted there is reason to suspect that Iran is behind the attack.
Ben Kasbet, a senior commentator at Maariv newspaper, quoted Israeli military sources as saying that Iran has a clear interest in launching a strategic cyber war against Israel in response to the cyber attacks it endured recently and accused Israel of carrying them out, specifically the Stuxnet worm that paralysed the centrifuge system used to enrich uranium in Iranian nuclear facilities. There have also been several attacks that targeted missile silos across Iran. "Israel has chosen to launch cyber war against Iran," Kasbet wrote, "and now it must face the same type of war. It only has itself to blame."
All of Israel's national security agencies agree that cyber war is to be taken seriously. Israeli Minister for Home Front Defence Matan Vilnai said that since civil and military institutions in Israel use highly advanced technology, these systems are more susceptible to hacking by hostile parties.
Shamuel Mentsur, the manager of a cyber security company in Israel, said that any digital war against Israel would completely paralyse the infrastructure of the country, such as airports, production in economic sectors, as well as private institutions. Mentsur explained that hostile parties could use technology to penetrate public and military communication networks, not only to acquire sensitive and critical secret information, but also pass on misinformation to decision makers in Israel that could cause serious harm.
Amos Yadlin, the former chief of military intelligence, said the Israeli army has already created a military unit for electronic warfare. Maariv quoted Yadlin as saying: "Electronic warfare is based on three principles: gathering intelligence, launching attacks and providing protection." As part of this policy, a new leadership was chosen especially for electronic warfare at what is known as Unit 8200, the electronic listening unit in Israel's military intelligence.
The new division is headed by a brigadier general and includes experts in space electronics and intelligence officers. It specialises in protecting the networks of sensitive military and civilian institutions such as the Israeli Power Company, airports and other critical locations. It also launches quick digital attacks on hostile parties. The Israeli army took further steps by announcing its intention to recruit 300 Israeli hackers, to put them to work in countering attacks that could be made against vital military targets.
The army Chief of Staff Beni Ganz has asked for revisions of the five-year plan that was recently approved by the military in order to allocate several million dollars to protect sensitive army systems. Meanwhile, the army opened for the first time this week an academy for what it described as "cyber fighters" whose job will be to protect the army's computer systems from virus attacks.
A key question is why Israel believes Iran is the primary suspect in launching electronic war against Tel Aviv, and whether Tehran has the capabilities to pursue such strategic attacks against Israel. Alex Fishman, a senior military commentator in Yediot Aharonot newspaper, believes that experience has shown that the Iranians have the capability to carry out damaging cyber attacks, which is why he takes a more firm position in pointing blame at Iran. "If Iran was recently able to take control of one of the most potent and expensive stealth unmanned US planes using advanced technology, then it is not impossible for Iranians to hack into the credit card database of tens of thousands of Israelis," stated Fishman.
He added that Iran has a record of cyber war and was able to achieve the "incredible" feat of crashing the main command and control operations of US unmanned drones in Iraq, although the headquarters of the unit flying them is located on a military base inside the US. Fishman added that although the US has 14,000 cyber war experts and invests billions of dollars to protect its cyber networks, it was unable to avert Iranian attacks.
Fishman believes there is reason to believe that Iran is capable of tapping into military systems around the world. He added that at the end of the 1980s, the Iranians were able to decipher the codes to Israeli surveillance planes over South Lebanon and pass on to Hizbullah fighters information necessary to help monitor the movements of Israeli special units operating in South Lebanon that was occupied by Israel at the time. This resulted in luring a group of the Israeli Navy's special unit Force 13 into a trap, killing 12 and injuring others.
In August, DigiNotar, a company specialised in online security in Israel, declared bankruptcy after Iranians hacked into the websites of two Israeli intelligence agencies, Mossad and Shin Bet, and the renowned news website Walla. Israeli military sources warn that any war against Israel would include cyber attacks, and that the Israeli military's superior technical capabilities -- in comparison to other armies in the region -- are also a critical weakness.
Yediot Aharonot quoted sources as saying that using advanced technology to strengthen effective coordination among army branches can be the Israeli army's Achilles heel, because advanced technology gives the "enemy" opportunity to infiltrate and paralyse the military structure running Israel's war machine, or manipulating it to target Israel.
The incident of hacking into an extensive credit card database has raised alarm bells among Israelis. The Knesset is scheduled to hold an emergency session to discuss ways of confronting "cyber war", while Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon threatened that cyber intrusion on Israel's sovereignty would bring consequences. In a seminar on Friday in Beersheba, Ayalon said that recent cyber attacks give Israel reason to follow the example of the US that has declared that any attack on its cyberspace is akin to a declaration of war, and it will respond even by launching actual missiles if necessary.
After Israel succeeded in crashing Iran's centrifuge system by using a cyber virus, an Israeli military officer boasted: "Instead of the Air Force, we can use cyberspace; instead of missiles, we can use viruses." It seems that in response Israel is likely to be confronted with other viruses, albeit of foreign origin.