My Word: Computer terror

Cyberterrorists need not waste their time on me: I’m already scared.

Masked members of Anonymous protest in Madrid, 2011_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Masked members of Anonymous protest in Madrid, 2011_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
If the point of terrorism is to, well, sow terror, I’m not an easy target – at least I wasn’t in the past. I traveled on Jerusalem buses at the height of the intifada; I have been North during Katyusha attacks and have visited the South despite the Kassams; and in the Gulf War I was willing to head to Scud-hit Tel Aviv for a story. But when it comes to computers, I get a shaky feeling just turning them on. Cyberterrorists need not waste their time on me: I’m already scared.
A true technophobe, I am convinced that any device that can keep track of the time even when it’s switched off can’t be up to much good. I know that evil lurks in computer cookies just as every child knows that the wicked witch in a fairy tale will tempt her victims with gingerbread or poisoned apples.
Come to think of it, most kindergarten kids are, rightly, more scared of strangers than they are of computers, whereas I will happily strike up a conversation on the bus or at the supermarket checkout but have absolutely no communication at all with my desktop. It politely offers me updates with options to “Install now” or “Install later” and I immediately want to scream: “I don’t want to install at all! I don’t know what this is or what it does!”
I am usually only a few clicks away from a panic attack. On the streets, I feel secure: I have studied self-defense, could probably still handle a gun, and can swear in several languages. But none of this is very helpful when I feel I’m being stalked by software (apart, perhaps, from the swearing).
I’m not sure I want to go back to the days when the words “cut” and “paste” meant just that – using scissors and Scotch tape – but I do miss the days when my computer was a simple tool that obeyed me instead of giving me orders.
I know spam is unkosher; I prefer Java coffee to Java updates; and my idea of an icon has nothing to do with a computer screen. I believe the cyberwar is unholy.
Recently, the battle between hackers has kept many a newspaper hack busy.
First there were the Israeli credit-card thefts apparently by a Saudi hacker, and then, last week, the war reached a new level with the closure of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and El Al sites.
I’m possibly the only person who was relieved to learn that an Arab hacker took credit for the attacks.
Given my kiss of death to anything online, I immediately assumed that it was my trying to find something on the El Al site that brought their whole system down.
When the Post’s Yaakov Lappin reported that he’d been in touch with an Arab hacker called 0xOmar who said the two sites were struck by a new team of anti-Israel hackers calling themselves “Nightmare,” my immediate response was, “Thank heavens it wasn’t my fault.”
My second response was the realization that Lappin is obviously braver than I am. I maintain e-mail contact with people in various places around the globe, including Muslim countries, but only with people I know from the real world, not the virtual one. I would call corresponding with an anonymous, confessed anti-Israel hacker my idea of a nightmare.
Friends have explained that last week’s hackers didn’t actually (or even virtually) access the information stored in the sites. They brought them down by flooding them with requests. (This I understand: Many a site has irked me by repeatedly demanding I either “Continue” or “Finish” without responding to either action, causing me to start the whole frustrating process all over again.) I might be a technological coward but I’m not a complete idiot. I realize that giving my credit-card information when ordering cinema tickets by phone is potentially as dangerous as buying online from eBay or Amazon.
But nonetheless, the government plans to create a biometric data base, at this stage, fill me with dread. Just as a few missiles can so easily escalate into an all-out military confrontation, I can’t help but feel that what starts with inconveniently causing a site or two to close down could easily lead to something more menacing. (On January 13, the Fire and Rescue Service website was defaced by pro-Palestinian hackers.) I was almost happy to learn from Lappin and others that a pro-Israel hacker named Hannibal has published information enabling Web users to break into the accounts of 20,000 Arab Facebook users and said he held information that could enable the breaking in to 10 million Iranian and Saudi bank accounts, causing billions of dollars in damage.
However, not only do I not trust computers; I don’t trust anyone who chooses to be known by the name Hannibal. And it does not escape me that if an Israeli hacker can break into Iranian and Saudi bank accounts, the same thing could happen in the other direction.
On January 17, Israeli hackers – going by the slightly less threatening name of the IDF-team – claimed to have brought down the official websites of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency and Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange in retaliation for the attack on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange the previous day.
As conflicts go, this is definitely better than those that Israel has survived over the years. Being blown to bits at a cafe or on a bus (heaven forbid) is obviously more serious than being the victim of Internet terror. Still, even allowing for my own fears, clearly such a war needs a new strategic response. This is not a change in tactic. It’s a declaration of a different type of war.
In May, the government announced that it had created a government cyber-command to secure the country against hacking attacks. Like the war on “conventional” terror, the problem is trying to predict where and when an attack could take place – almost anywhere, any time – and the havoc that can be potentially caused by a few individuals, rather than an entire armed force.
It is a mistake to think that cybernet terror is a “clean war.” True, the terrorists could be carrying out an attack from the comfort of their own living rooms or a neighborhood cafe, but it doesn’t mean it can’t lead to very real victims. A successful assault on, say, the Population Registry, could provide information to help those terrorists who don’t mind getting blood on their hands. Blocking medical data at a hospital could also cost lives. So could bringing down any of the many sites related to the country’s energy infrastructure.
In this strange world, the soldiers on the frontlines might be considered “geeks.” And they are already at work.
It is likely that, as dramatic as last week’s attacks were, far more serious attacks have been prevented.
As in any war, a large part of the solution lies in prevention and deterrence.
And, as in any war, it helps to have global allies. International law needs to be updated to take the new type of warfare into account and, for example, allow for arrests to take place in one country for an Internet attack carried out on another.
The good news is, Israel has proven itself a hi-tech success story (partly because of its embattled situation and military needs, according to the bestselling book Start-up Nation.) The country’s cyber-enemies are learning that when you play with firewalls, you could get burned.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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