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Expert: Hacks by Chinese ‘frenemy’ a fact of life

Business ties between Israel and China grow closer daily, but that doesn’t stop hackers from helping themselves to tech secrets

Liu Qibao (center) visits JVP's Media Quarter in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Shmuel Cohen)
Liu Qibao (center) visits JVP's Media Quarter in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Shmuel Cohen)

There’s a Hebrew expression, chabdehu vechashdehu, which means “respect, but suspect.” That applies to Israel’s relationship with China, through which nearly every week, a high-level Chinese delegation arrives in Israel, seeking to develop projects with local start-ups and tech companies in a wide variety of areas.

In water, media technology, telecom, big data, and even security, China is anxious to absorb Israeli technology as it struggles to build a first-world economy that will provide its ever-burgeoning population with jobs.

But there’s another side to China that Israel must deal with — the China that will stop at nothing to acquire the technology it seeks, using hacking and other illicit means to get what it wants. That China was very much in evidence this week, as Israeli officials conveyed Sunday night that they had intercepted an attempted attack by Chinese hackers who wanted to break into Israeli security sites. According to Channel 2, over 140 top-level officials in Israeli security organizations reported a hacking attempt via a Trojan horse.

This was by no means the first attempted massive hack attack by China, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that China operates on two fronts, says Israeli tech security expert Dr. Tal Pavel. “After the revelations that the US has spied on its allies for years, listening in on the conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for nearly a decade, why would anyone be surprised when Chinese hackers try to invade the servers of a country that has advanced technology, while at the same time sending their top officials to learn about that technology?”

According to the Channel 2 report, project and division heads at some of Israel’s largest and most sensitive tech companies — many among them that do work for the IDF and security services — received an e-mail from a German company that many Israeli security firms subcontract work out to. The e-mail, it turned out, contained a Trojan horse program, or a bit of code that embeds itself in a computer system, set to begin working at a specified date, or when “awakened” by orders from its senders.

Generally, Trojan horses are used to open a point of contact for hackers, who are able to get into a system and then either steal information, infect data, or erase information.

The report did not say how the attack was detected, but did say that once it was discovered, organizations across the country updated their security systems, sensing that they, too, had been attacked with the same hacking code. Israeli firms providing security services for many of these companies expressed hope that this particular security breach would not repeat itself.

The attack, Channel Two said, occurred several weeks ago – apparently just days before the arrival of one of the most high-level Chinese delegations ever to visit Israel. The official government delegation, which visited Jerusalem Venture Partners’ Media Quarter start-up accelerator, was comprised of several top members of government, and was led by Liu Qibao, a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC (Communist Party of China) Central Committee, and secretary of the CPC Central Secretariat. The visit was organized by the Chinese Embassy in Israel. During his visit, Qibao also met with President Shimon Peres and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.

The delegation hoped to learn a bit about how Israel has been able to produce so much innovation with few apparent resources, said JVP. Company officials briefed the Chinese group about the Israeli high tech eco-system and its venture capital industry, and discussed JVP’s success in investing in that eco-system. An impressed Qibao praised JVP’s incubator model and how the fund helps “grow” start-ups into significant companies, helping them to expand markets.

Doing business with China is, it seems, on the agenda of many Israeli companies and public officials. On his recent visit to China, for example, Economics Minister Naftali Bennett said in an interview with Chinese media that Israel and China can do a lot for each other. China is already Israel’s third largest trading partner worldwide, but Bennett feels that it’s a “drop in the ocean” compared to what will happen when Israel-China trade really gets underway, he told China’s English-language Global Times newspaper.

There are already dozens of projects going on between Israel and China in numerous areas such as water technology, a fact highlighted by the presence of no fewer than 200 Chinese water industry executives and government officials at the WaTec water technology show in Tel Aviv. Among the projects already in place is a huge “water technology village” being built in Guandong, where Israeli companies will help upgrade China’s water recycling, infrastructure, irrigation, and waste technology efforts.

Dr. Tal Pavel (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Tal Pavel (Photo credit: Courtesy)

China and Israel are already close economic allies, and are becoming closer all the time, but business is business, and hacking into Israeli systems in order to get Israel’s tech secrets for free is part of business, said Pavel. “China can work on both levels,” he explained. “After the NSA scandal, China’s activities become more understandable.” Spying by governments, or elements in them, whether against friends or enemies, is now a fact of life. And countries that have the ability to hack into computers are going to do so, regardless of their feelings for the targets, he said.

Of course, just because the attacks were traced back to China doesn’t mean that Chinese hackers, private or government-employed, were behind the attack. It’s easy enough to spoof an IP address, and the chances are no one would question a hack attack from China too deeply, thereby making it the perfect patsy for another group interested in hiding its tracks.

“Unless someone comes out and announces that they are responsible, there is no way to know who is really behind a hack attack,” said Pavel. And Israel wouldn’t want to jeopardize lucrative business ties by accusing China of such acts.

“The only real way to deal with things like this is to soldier on, beefing up our cyber-security efforts, installing the best anti-virus programs on computers, and following the obvious rules, like not opening attachments unless you are 100% you know that they are safe.”

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