Iran launched a cyber-attack targeting Israeli army generals, human rights activists in the Persian Gulf and scientists, an Israeli cyber-security firm said Thursday.

Gil Shwed, CEO of Check Point Software Technologies, said the attack began two months ago and was directed at some 1,600 people worldwide. They received email messages aimed at sending spyware into their computers, Shwed told Israel Radio.

More than a quarter of the recipients opened the emails and thus unknowingly downloaded spyware, allowing the hackers to steal information from their hard drives.

Over the last two years, Israel has been targeted by a number of cyber-attacks. Officials say hackers affiliated with Hezbollah and the Iranian government were behind some of the infiltration attempts.

Gil Shwed (Courtesy)

Gil Shwed (Courtesy)

On Tuesday, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz revealed that Israel’s Electric Authority was being targeted by a “severe cyber-attack,” although he did not say where it was coming from.

In June, the Israeli ClearSky cyber-security company said it had discovered an ongoing wave of cyber attacks originating from Iran on targets in Israel and the Middle East, with Israeli generals again among the targets. The goal is “espionage or other nation-state interests,” the firm said. The hackers use techniques such as targeted phishing — in which hackers gather user identification data using false web pages that look like real and reputable ones — to hack into 40 targets in Israel and 500 worldwide, said ClearSky. In Israel the targets have included retired generals, employees of security consulting firms and researchers in academia.

Shwed warned Thursday that the pace of cyber-attacks is accelerating faster than the pace of investment in cyber safety, the Calcalist newspaper reported.

Israel is second only to the United States in cyber-security technology, according to Gadi Tirosh, managing partner at Jerusalem Venture Partners, which has been one of the country’s most active investors in the field.

There are currently 173 companies in Israel big enough to be backed by venture capital companies and other major investors. That does not include the hundreds of others that are bootstrapped or relying on other sources of funds; altogether, there are 430 cyber companies currently operating in Israel, according to a report released earlier this month by the Israel Venture Capital (IVC) Research Center, with an average of 52 new cyber startups established annually since 2000.