Cyberattacks by Iran, Hezbollah have tripled during the war, says Israel cyber czar

Iranian-linked hacker group conducts cyberattacks against Israel from the offices of a disguised IT company in the heart of Tehran, Cyber Directorate chief reveals

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

Gaby Portnoy, director general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate, speaks at the Cybertech 2024 conference in Tel Aviv, April 9, 2024. (Cybertech)
Gaby Portnoy, director general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate, speaks at the Cybertech 2024 conference in Tel Aviv, April 9, 2024. (Cybertech)

Cyber defense chief Gaby Portnoy warned on Tuesday that the intensity of cyberattacks against Israel has tripled since the outbreak of the Hamas war on October 7, as Iran and its proxies, including Hezbollah, are increasingly joining hacking efforts.

“When [Hamas’s military wing commander Mohammed] Deif and [Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya] Sinwar surprised Israel on Oct. 7, they succeeded in undermining the physical security of people in Israel. And at the same time, on the digital level, by the order of Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei, cyberattacks by Iran and Hezbollah in the region and beyond started around the clock against Israel,” said Portnoy, head of the Israel National Cyber Directorate, at the 10th global Cybertech conference in Tel Aviv.

“The attack intensity is higher than ever before with Iranian and Hezbollah groups cooperating to attack Israel in every sector,” he added.

Portnoy disclosed that the Islamic Republic’s Intelligence Ministry has civilian proxies conducting cyberattacks against Israeli targets under the guise of a tech company, working from an office building in the heart of Teheran. The civilian hacking squad affiliated with the Iranian Intelligence Ministry and the Hezbollah-linked group, Lebanese Cedar, was behind the cyberattack on Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Safed in November.

The cyberattack failed to disrupt the hospital’s operations, but the hacking group managed to extract sensitive medical information.

In the first three months following the October 7 Hamas-led massacre in southern Israel, the number of cyberattacks Israel experienced was 2.5 times higher than in previous years, with a total of 3,380 incidents recorded, according to the National Cyber Directorate’s annual report for 2023. During the period, about 800 of the cyber assaults were categorized as having “significant potential for damage,” according to the report.

Gil Shwed, founder and executive chairman of Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. (left), speaks at the Cybertech 2024 conference in Tel Aviv, April 9, 2024. (Cybertech)

Portnoy also spoke about the hacking squad’s recent attempts to damage various sectors in Israel, including academia, tourism, media, finance, transportation, health, government, and technology. Despite increased cyber operations during the war, it did not succeed in inflicting substantial economic damage, he said.

“I strongly recommend every hacker especially those working for Iran to think about the potential implications of cyberterrorism against Israel or its allies – even if you are doing it from a civilian office at the heart of Teheran: We know you,” Portnoy said.

Earlier this month, the Justice Ministry said it was looking into a “cyber incident” after activist hackers protesting against the war in Gaza said they managed to breach the ministry’s servers and retrieve hundreds of gigabytes of data

Speaking to an audience of cybersecurity experts and company and government representatives from 60 countries, Portnoy emphasized that in cyberspace there are no borders.

“Iran is trying to harm business continuity,” Portnoy cautioned. “With one push of a button it is Israel, and tomorrow it can be anywhere else so we need to fight cyberterrorism together.”

“In cyber matters, we need a common language between countries,” he urged.

Attendees, including delegations from 60 countries, company and government representatives, as well as cybersecurity experts gather at the 10th Cybertech conference in Tel Aviv, April 9, 2024. (Cybertech)

Also speaking at the conference, Gil Shwed, founder and executive chairman of cybersecurity giant Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., said that the number of Iranian and Hezbollah-backed cyberattacks has more than doubled since the outbreak of the war.

“We are seeing our enemies becoming stronger, with more sophisticated attacks, as the internet is an open market,” Shwed noted. “A lot of innovation in cyberspace is coming from Israel but the market can’t absorb so many technologies.”

“We need to consolidate the technologies and platforms and work together in cyberspace to block the attack, and prevent the damage,” he said.

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