Jerusalem poised for cyber conflict as tension rises between the US and the Islamic Republic. Military jets falling out of the sky, financial systems paralysed and the railway network brought to a shuddering standstill are just some of the evolving global cyber threats faced by Israel.
As war rhetoric escalates between Iran and the United States, Israel – which Iran has vowed to ‘wipe off the map’ – finds itself under constant cyber-attack. Israeli hospitals, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, the Bank of Israel, and government web sites have all come under cyber assault in the past.
Newly-reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls cyber-attack against Israel “a supreme test for our civilisation. It is going to be tested not only by criminal organisations, by terrorists, but by other states”.
Iran is one such state. Hossein Salami, Deputy Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Command Corp (IRGC) recently threatened ‘Our strategy is to erase Israel from the global political map… We warn the Zionist regime: You are vulnerable and you lack strategic depth. We are warning them: You are bringing yourselves closer to death.”
CrowdStrike, a U.S. cybersecurity company, earlier this year published its first ranking of the West’s cyber enemies. Though Russian spies were the fastest at moving from breaking into a device to penetrating a valuable network (‘breakout time’), Iran-backed hackers were twice as fast as the most sophisticated criminal groups.
Elad Ben-Meir is CEO of SCADAfence, an Israeli firm that protects critical operational infrastructure (OT), such as ‘smart’ cities, power networks, water systems and manufacturing plants, from cyber-attack.
Referring to Iran’s cyber warfare capabilities, Ben-Meir says “They’re improving in a variety of ways. They’ve had some successes. That’s a unique cat-and-mouse scenario. But our [Israel’s] defences are also strengthening.”
Prior to April’s general election in Israel, Iran claimed to have hacked Netanyahu’s family’s cell phones – a claim dismissed by the Prime Minister and the country’s security service – plus phones of rival politician Benny Gantz and former PM Ehud Barak.
Iran has form in this area. In 2013, Israel accused Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah of a series of large-scale attacks against vital national systems, including water, power and banking systems. During the 2014 Gaza campaign, Iranian cyber-attacks targeted Israel’s civilian infrastructure, including financial networks and government security systems, while Israel faced over one million cyber-attacks each day.
Freydoon Khoie, Chairman of the Iranian Freedom Party, which seeks to oust the ruling ayatollahs and introduce democratic reforms to the Islamic Republic, says the ravaged economy has suborned tech-savvy youngsters to conduct cyber warfare on the regime’s behalf.
“Over 40 per cent unemployment is forcing some of these brilliant young man and women to become economic slaves in the hands of a brutal and murderous regime and used for the purpose of cyber warfare against their will,” he claims.
Yigal Unna, Director-General of the Israel National Cyber Directorate, said Israel’s overall cyber security strategy is to fold technical and political methods into one operational unit to build capacity for Israel’s cyber defence.
A new Cyber Security Complex in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba is set to boost cooperation across agencies and become a leading global authority on cybersecurity, according to Netanyahu. In addition, a hermetically-sealed ‘cyber shield’ is currently underconstruction, a digital version of Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ missile defence system.
Israel’s reputation as a world leader in cybersecurity is well established. Many private cybersecurity firms are spawned by former members of the Israeli military’s renowned Intelligence Corps Unit 8200.
Former CIA director and head of the coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan Gen (Ret) David H. Petraeus, has labelled Israel a ‘cyber superpower’. He has warned of the perils of the U.S. invading Iran, but said it would be suicidal for Iran to attack the U.S. or its allies, of which Israel is prominent.
Israel’s land-based transport network is vulnerable to cyber-attack. Israel Baron, Head of Cyber at Israel Railways, argues there is a misconception that railway control systems are ‘air gapped’ and as such are safe from hackers. Instead, railway systems are becoming vulnerable to cyber-attack due to networked control and automation systems that can be accessed remotely via public and private networks.
Baron says secured and encrypted communication channels to locomotives and using predictive analysis on signalling systems helps thwart attacks on the rail network. Under the guidance of regulator NCSA (National Cyber Security Authority), Israel Railways is building state-of-the-art monitoring systems to detect and neutralise hostile cyber activity.
Israel boasts 20 percent of all global private investments in cybersecurity. The country’s cyber exports amounted to $3.8 billion in 2017.