Army and hi-tech executives consider the next war

Every day between 30,000 and 100,000 known attempts are made to hack into Israeli government computers.

keyboard 88 (photo credit: )
keyboard 88
(photo credit: )
On a crisp autumn afternoon a group of students, military officers and hi-tech executives hunkered down in the muggy recesses of the Bar Shira Auditorium in Tel Aviv University to consider the next war. Every day between 30,000 and 100,000 known attempts are made to hack into Israeli government computers from between 2,000 and 9,000 Internet service providers. Most of these come from the United States, but also from China, Taiwan, Europe and Brazil. Neither Arab countries nor Iran are on this list. But traveling across global networks and flitting in and out of countries without assuming a physical presence, cyber warriors pose a new challenge to old notions of national sovereignty. And their assaults on societal information networks blur traditional distinctions between military and civilian targets. "The most scary thing is that you don't need a lot of people who know how to wage attacks and that is what concerns us," says MK Eliezer Sandberg (Shinui), a former minister of science. "Is Israel ready for cyber warfare?" Sandberg asked. "No," he answered emphatically. This decade of Internet has seen governments and militaries grapple with the fighting on the virtual battlefield, where defense analysts warn of Armageddon-like cyber invasions that would bring down telecommunications and air-traffic control networks and send world stock markets plunging into doom. Sparked by the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, Israel began organizing its defense against key infrastructure, including protection from cyber attack. The government decided to lay the task on the doorstep of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). On September 11, 2003, a special information protection unit was set up. The unit is responsible for protecting the data of critical state infrastructures. Some of these institutions are the country's fuel depots, blood banks and the electric company. They comprise a national information security authority that is responsible for protecting the data of the country's communications, energy, health, transportation, water, finances and government industries. It is not responsible for the IDF, Mossad, police or Defense Ministry. They have their own protection. However, it does not provide the physical protection. That is the responsibility of the police. If, for example, a terrorist infiltrates a power station, the police would deal with it. However, if the terrorist is in, say, Germany, and penetrates via a computer, then it would be dealt with by this unit. Very little has been revealed about this unit. Last week, Tel Aviv University hosted a seminar on cyber warfare that addressed these sorts of strikes. While most evening lectures are usually attended by a majority of retirees, the crowd here was extremely young and there were many men and women in uniform. The seminar was sponsored by the Netvision Institute for Researching the Internet. Director Eli Hacohen raised the question of whether a cyber attack is a declaration of war. "How will an attacked country identify the enemy? Can one use conventional weapons as retaliation for a Trojan horse-type cyber attack?" From the stage Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak Ben-Israel, head of the security studies programs at Tel Aviv University, threw out ideas that were projected on a giant screen beside him. It bathed the stage in bluish light, casting the speaker and his audience in a cool ethereal glow. As former head of IDF weapons development defense infrastructure, Ben-Israel said the anonymity of a cyber attack raised moral questions of how a state was to respond. "When Hizbullah fires on us, or if Syria attacks the Azrieli Towers [in Tel Aviv], we know what to do. It's clear that this is a declaration of war," Ben-Israel said. "But if Syria sent us a virus that attacked our electric company and it caused accidents, what do we do then? Suppose we find out it comes from the Syrian general headquarters. Then what do we do? Attack with planes? Send a virus to them?" he pondered, innocently revealing that the IDF had its own offensive cyber warriors. "Or it could be teenage [hackers]. Then what? Would it be acceptable to kill them? Still, if our war with the Arabs were waged between computers, then we have the advantage," he said. "But our neighbors don't have serious systems we can attack." The IDF is proud of its increasingly computerized army. It has so vastly improved its command and control capabilities that on the modern battlefield some of its forces are completely digitalized. It's the quest of every modern force to remove the ubiquitous fog of war. Paradoxically, while the IDF is plowing ahead with its revolutionary reform to make its digitalized divisions pack a heavier and more accurate punch, it is also exposing itself to a cyber attack. It's the age-old rule of warfare: The bigger they are, the harder they fall. "We are very vulnerable and we can't utilize this against our enemies since they are not at the level we are," Ben-Israel said.