Sometime in the last six months, the cellphones of prime minister candidate and former IDF chief Benny Gantz as well as former prime minister and IDF chief Ehud Barak were hacked.
According to Channel 12, Gantz’s cellphone was hacked by Iran and Barak’s was hacked by a third party who sold the information to Iran.
There is also a report from a Saudi Arabian media outlet, denied by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), that the cellphones of Sara and Yair Netanyahu were hacked by Iran.
In light of the reports, it is worth asking whether Israel has failed to learn the lessons of the hacking of the 2016 US presidential election, especially of the Democrats’ campaign.
With over two years to prepare for this moment, how can it be that top Israeli officials have not secured their methods of communication?
The Jerusalem Post has learned from a number of top sources that while these questions might make sense for non-experts, for experts in the field they are not particularly meaningful.
First, sources would point out that cellphones are notoriously not able to be secured.
In an age when cellphones rest on several layers of networks and infrastructures to operate, far more than even computers, each layer is another potential point of entry to a cellphone.
Add in that many people regularly use wireless cellphone networks in public areas, restaurants and other places, and the points of vulnerability multiply exponentially.
In fact, reportedly there are Israeli companies whose primary products are made to hack into cellphones. They say this is in order to fight terror and drug rings.
It is for this reason that the IDF uses secure landline red phones connected only to unique IDF infrastructure for secret communications.
In fact, sources say that the only real way to somewhat reduce the risk of a cellphone being hacked is to have a secret cellphone whose number, very few people know, so that hackers will have trouble knowing which cellphone to hack.
In contrast, the hacking of US systems were not just cellphones, but computer networks, which not invulnerable, can and should have much greater forms of protection.
So the comparison itself of what was hacked in the US and what has been hacked to date in Israel is weak.
Another question from the hacking stories is, how do Israeli cyber agencies know who the hackers are?
Here, the agencies have a variety of indicators that they can use, in addition to other forms of intelligence beyond cyber forensics.
But some simple rules of thumb are that around 95% of hacking attempts are from non-state actors exploiting known vulnerabilities, or holes, in cellphones or network defenses which the users simply did not bother to cover.
When a cellphone or network is hacked using a more sophisticated technique to breach it, this tends to indicate state actors – who are the only ones usually to have the time and resources to run simulations and break down complex source-codes.
Even among state-actors there are clues. There are points where state’s cyber hackers get lazy and reuse past techniques known to be used by a specific country or leave pieces of their native language somewhere in the forensics of the attack.
The next question is how to deter Iran and other potential cyber adversaries from deciding to try to hack top Israeli officials’ cellphones and networks in the future.
For example, should Israel be publicly striking back against Iran with its cyber abilities, which are considered far greater than most countries beyond the US, Russia and China?
Only three weeks ago, the US revealed a cyberattack it conducted against Russia’s Internet Research Agency during the 2018 US midterm elections.
The Russian agency is credited with having done of lot of the damage to the 2016 US presidential elections, but reportedly was too busy trying to get its own systems running again to cause damage in 2018.
By leaking its success, the US also has arguably started to take back the cyber narrative from Russia about who has the initiative and may start achieving greater deterrence.
Top sources are skeptical of this view.
They said it is too early to say how successful the US cyberattack was and whether it was anything more than a short-term tactical victory from which Russia might adjust its cyberattacks or even launch a larger counter-punch.
Further, they say that much of what Russia did related to influence campaigns on social media and that the US’s vital infrastructure has till generally gone undamaged.
Likewise, cellphone hacks, even of top officials (especially if they properly kept off compromising information knowing they could be targets) are not the same as an adversary hacking critical infrastructure.
In other words, it may be wise not to overreact.
That does not mean Israel will not respond to Iran – or may not have already responded (see Israel’s appropriation in January 2018 of a massive amount of Tehran’s nuclear secrets).
But it does mean that Israel can stick to its broader cyber strategy regardless of the recently announced cellphones hacks being regarded as a broader failure.
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