Ever since the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense, hackers have been working overtime to strike a blow against the Israeli government’s computer systems, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said Sunday. No fewer than 44 million attacks have been recorded since the operation began five days ago — with nearly all of them failing, thanks to the recent strengthening of computer defense systems in Israel.
Speaking at a special press conference at the Government Computing Center in Jerusalem about the cyber war against Israel that has accompanied Hamas’s rocket attacks, Steinitz said that hackers “are trying to disable the symbols of Israeli sovereignty, to enter web sites and install anti-Israel content, thus compromising information and data and damaging the government’s ability to serve the public.” Most of the attacks, he said, were against government sites, like the Prime Minister’s Office site, and security-related sites, such as that of the Home Front Command, the body charged with informing Israelis on how to protect themselves in the event of an attack.
Out of those 44 million-plus attacks on government and defense related sites, said Steinitz, only one succeeded – partially. One site, which he did not name, was “wobbly for a few minutes,” but quickly recovered. Even though the government has been successful in warding off hack attacks, Steinitz said that government sites were fully backed up and mirrored, meaning that they could be replaced by a duplicate site instantly if the original site were compromised.
So just who is behind the attacks? Steinitz said that the government’s computing unit had traced many of the attacks to IP addresses in the US and Europe, and not to Arab countries. While Steinitz could not say whether these hackers were affiliated with Anonymous, the international hacker organization that has pledged to destroy Israel’s computing system in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, the methods being used by the hackers were consistent with the kinds of attacks Anonymous is known for.
Carmela Avner, the government’s chief information officer said that “we haven’t seen many attempts to enter sites and steal data. Most of the attacks have been of the type where hackers try to overload servers with excessive data,” such as in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks or “e-mail bomb” attacks — both of which try to overload servers to the extent that they are unable to function. According to Avner, the web site of President Shimon Peres has been a major target of hackers using these methods, with over 20 million attempted DDoS attacks on the site, all of which have failed.
Other types of common attacks on Israeli sites include hackers pejoratively known as “script kiddies” running prepared scripts looking for security holes. While such attacks have succeeded against sites stored on servers that haven’t been updated with the latest security software, the government sites are secure from such attacks, said Avner. “We have not closed any sites, but we have prevented access from IP addresses that we determined were problematic,” she said.
The news probably comes as a huge disappointment to Anonymous, whose #OpIsrael hashtag was riding high on Twitter Friday and Saturday, but dropped precipitously on Sunday, possibly because the attacks on Israeli government sites were not working. However, the hackers were able to change the web pages of numerous private sites that presumably were not well protected.
The government computing unit was informed in advance that the Gaza operation was set to begin, and it shored up defenses of sites under its responsibility accordingly. “We’ve been facing some very tough challenges, but we have succeeded,” said Avner. “We are used to working in emergency conditions, and we are prepared to continue meeting those challenges.”