Israeli Troops Swap Guns for Computers as Cyber Attacks Rise
At an army base outside Tel Aviv, soldiers sit in front of screens glued to scrolling colored computer code, keyboards at the ready to deflect attacks.
They’re Israel’s cyber defense team in training, among the uniformed men and women learning how to stalk hackers and pounce on virtual enemies as the state shields everything from ministry websites to the systems running the Tel Aviv stock market.
“To become one of the leading countries in cyber security, we have to act quickly to ensure that everyone will understand Israel is on its way to becoming a leading cyber-nation,” Rami Efrati, head of the civilian division of the National Cyber Bureau, said in an interview at the year-old agency this month. “Cyber security can be a national growth engine.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who expects to be tapped to form Israel’s next ruling coalition later this week, has been channeling resources to the intensifying subterranean war through fiber optic cables between Israel and its enemies.
The Israeli leader has repeatedly pointed to Iran and its allies, warning of the threat of cyber-attacks last month. Iran in turn accused Israel and the U.S. of trying to sabotage its nuclear program in 2011, while last year a virus wreaked havoc with Iranian computer systems.
“Cyber has three dimensions: intelligence, defense and offense,” said Amos Yadlin, the former military intelligence chief who now heads the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Anyone who deals with any one of the dimensions must understand the other two. You can’t defend if you don’t know how to attack.”
Israeli government networks are among the most highly attacked in the world, with daily assaults numbering in the tens of thousands, the Soufan Group, a New York-based security adviser, said in a Jan. 14 report.
Two months ago, civilian computer technicians sat in front of a bank of screens in a Jerusalem government building deflecting millions of attempted attacks on Israeli government websites as the country’s air force struck the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and rockets hit Israel’s towns and cities.
Palestinian militants in Gaza consider cyber part of their resistance to Israel. “Our professional hackers never sleep,” said the spokesman for a pro-Hamas group who goes by the name Abu Mujahid. Islamic Jihad, which like Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, said in November its operatives hacked into 5,000 mobile phones belonging to senior Israeli army officers.
On the other side, an Israeli hacker calling himself “Yourikan” published credit card numbers and expiration dates belonging to customers of the Palestinian Internet service provider Palnet, according to eSecurity Planet. Two months earlier, the Israeli defaced more than 90 Iranian sites, according to an interview he gave to Infosec Island, an online community for network professionals who manage security, risk and compliance issues.
“A virtual exchange of blows has been around in the Middle East for over a decade,” said Gabi Weimann, a Haifa University professor who wrote “Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, The New Challenges.”
The army’s defense unit was established as the threats grow increasingly sophisticated and follows the founding of an offensive division in the intelligence corps that Soufan said is reportedly comparable to the American National Security Agency in technical expertise, if not in size.
The military has increased the budget for the intelligence unit believed to be charged with cyber offense to 2 billion shekels ($537 million), the Ynet news site said in November. In October, Channel 2 television said the army wants to double the number of soldiers in the unit. The army declined to comment.
The National Cyber Bureau started operating as part of the Prime Minister’s Office in January 2012, the same month the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. were paralyzed by a Saudi hacker, who also published credit card information of thousands of Israelis on the Web.
It won’t be long until cyber-attacks have the ability to determine a war, Tel Aviv University’s Yadlin said at a seminar in September. “I can’t say if it will be 10 years, 20 years, or less than that.”
More needs to be done for Israel to be ready, said Erel Margalit, founder of the $900 million Jerusalem Venture Partners, which is investing in Israeli cyber-war technology start-ups.
“There is a new heightened awareness today and things need to go to the next level,” said Margalit, who was elected to parliament last week for the opposition Labor Party.
High School Program
To achieve that, the bureau gave 50 million shekels to education projects and 80 million shekels to start-up companies working in computer security.
Netanyahu, at the inauguration of a civilian high school program run by the bureau in coordination with the military and a private fund last month, congratulated the chosen students as the country’s “future interceptors.” There are now 150 of them in training and Efrati said that will multiply this year. The tenth through twelfth-grade students are taught by former intelligence corps. soldiers who are expert in cyber.
“We see cyber-attacks and security as both a threat and an opportunity,” Efrati said on Jan. 13, noting the high school program was given a four-year budget of several million shekels. “We need new people who know how to deal with cyber. Finding the right ones is like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Daniella Shamrakov, a 16-year-old computer whiz picked for the program, looks forward to being drafted into an elite unit to defend her country, she said. She eventually wants to work for a high-technology company.
“The program intends to improve the quality of those dealing with cyber, boost their knowledge and increase the number of people who are cyber experts,” said Lieutenant Colonel Saguy, the intelligence officer involved in the course who can only be identified by his first name.
Exercises include having the students create a virtual environment into which a virus is let loose. The students have to catch the virus, put in into what is called a sandbox and then watch and learn how it operates. Only the best will then be posted to Israel’s cyber front, he said.
Technology makes up almost half of industrial exports. Israel’s economy depends on exports, which account for about 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. (CHKP), the world’s second- largest maker of security networks, looks for new software developers in the military programs, Chief Executive Officer Gil Shwed, a veteran of an elite intelligence unit, has said.
Cyber-Ark Software Ltd., another Israeli cyber-defense company, also locates top programmers in units that include the army’s program for exceptional math and science students.
“We’re always looking for a relative military advantage and technology is a way to do that,” the commander of the C4-1 computer division, Lieutenant Colonel O, said in an interview at the Tel Aviv base. She can only be identified by the first letter of her first name and her rank due to security reasons.
One of about 20 soldiers currently in the course, whose name also can’t be revealed in accordance with army regulation, said every hour he learns something new.
“The concept in Israel is that war still means dodging through a battlefield, but there is this new dimension developing at full speed,” he said. Another student noted that in the virtual war, the assailant has the element of surprise that means “you have to think like he does, out-of-the box.”
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