0xOmar, Ayalon, and the next revolution in warfare

We are on the cusp of being able to disarm enemies without firing a single shot.

Hacked 311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Hacked 311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
0xOmar, the Saudi hacker who posted the credit card information of thousands of Israelis on several occasions, has rattled Israeli nerves over the past few weeks. But it is important to keep these events in perspective: 0xOmar is both a strategic and technical novice. An amateur. Or as real hackers would brand him: a script kiddie.
The threat he represents is one we can overcome. This said, it is time to take cyber warfare seriously and realize the extent to which it is going to revolutionize the way future wars are fought.
0xOmar: More Pest than Peril
In terms of 0xOmar's technical prowess, there is a yawning gap between his bluster and his bite. The Saudi hacker claimed to have gathered details of over 1 million Israeli credit card holders, and in his initial attack made it appear as if he had published details for 400,000 of them. Quickly, however, it became evident that there were only 18,000 unique individuals listed. Even then, much of the credit card information was long out of date or simply made up. His second posting of 11,000 names again proved to be almost entirely duplicates. At this rate, his claim that he will release 200 more names a day means he probably has 3 new names left.
Similarly, there is no proof to validate his claim to have penetrated the networks of military contractors.
His other feat: the DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attacks on the websites of El Al, the Stock Exchange, and a few banks were also about as elementary as they come. Trading at the stock exchange was unaffected, and the bank websites targeted were not even those that provide online services.
Denying access for a few hours to a bank's advertising site is the cyber equivalent of spraying graffiti on the side of a bank: it's an eye sore, but causes very little harm. In fact—and keep this in mind, my little script kiddie, in case you consider hacking this website—the extra publicity from the attack more than makes up for a few hours of lost traffic.
All this suggests that 'ole Omar has few additional rabbits left up his sleeve, and we are likely to simply see more DDoS attacks.
The Saudi hacker has succeeded in one thing: he built himself reputation in the Arab world. For most young male teenagers, this in itself could prove a sufficient incentive. Unfortunately, as a hacker living in Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely to help him much with the ladies. 
Just Like Terrorism
Credit card information is stolen all the time. What made these events different was that it was, as Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon termed it, an act of terrorism: violence aimed at sowing panic in order to achieve a political goal (vague as his goals are).
The good news is that we have the potential to defeat this type of terrorism—that is, if we address the challenge wisely. This is where Ayalon erred badly.
For years, we've realized that media coverage is the fuel of terrorism. If only the media could ignore terrorist attacks, we have opined, it would greatly reduce the incentive for conducting them. But the crude truth about traditional terrorism is that the media cannot be expected to relegate dead bodies strewn on the street to page 10.
The same is not true of cyber terrorism—especially when the real impact of the attack is so minor.
In other words, if there is a danger here, it is 0xOmar's call to arms and the threat that copycats will repeat the tactic. So if the optimal response is to essentially ignore the attack, then Ayalon's decision to publicly talk tough about the hacker instead of publicly shrugging him off… well, it is pleasing to the ears of his electorate, but undermines our national security.
Cyber Warfare: Sport of the Future
That recent attacks do not threaten Israel strategically does not mean we should discount the importance of cyber warfare. For while 0xOmar is essentially an annoying gadfly, cyber attacks are going to revolutionize the way future wars are fought. Indeed, the impact will eventually be akin to the introduction of the aircraft, dynamite, or gunpowder.
Consider that even today, of all the efforts made by Western countries to delay the Iranian nuclear program, there is little doubt that Stuxnet, a sophisticated computer virus, was among the most effective at achieving that goal. In knocking out at least 1,000 centifuges, Stuxnet produced more concrete results than either limited sanctions or the plethora of Israeli and American military threats.
That it was able to debilitate Iran's most sensitive systems, despite being "air-gapped" (meaning they were in no way connected to the internet), that is the sort of computer wizardry which separates true cyber threats from the antics of script kiddies out in the Saudi desert.
Best of all, the lack of casualties and fireworks, coupled with the extreme difficulty in definitively attributing the source of cyber attacks, made Iranian military reprisals a poor option.
Now, as impressive as Stuxnet was, it was just the opening salvo. Last October, we were afforded a first glimpse into exactly how potent this type of war-fighting could one day become. Specifically, senior US officials told the New York Times that they had debated using a cyber attack to neutralize Libya's air defense system. 
That's right: we are on the cusp of being able to largely disarm adversaries, in one fell swoop, without firing a single shot.
When one considers the extent to which the cutting edge armies of the world are increasing their dependence on unmanned vehicles and devices (both in the air and on the ground) and increasing the degree to which units of all types are integrating based on improvements in information technology, the degree to which a highly successful cyber attack could one day paralyze whole armies is breath-taking.
Ironically, the short-lived panic caused by 0xOmar might actually be a blessing in disguise for Israel in the long-term. But that will require our decision-makers, and particularly the IDF's top brass, to realize that shifting more resources to cyber warfare can conceivably bring a larger marginal return on investment than, say, improving IDF tanks or even IAF aircraft. Indeed, the IDF's ability to innovate its cyber weapons may very well determine its performance in the next major war.
The writer is the former Deputy Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.