Israel is attacked 1,000 times a minute by cyber-terrorists who are largely targeting the country’s infrastructure — water, electricity, communications, and other important services. And while the hackers have so far failed to mount a meaningful attack on major systems that. for example, might leave Israelis without power, there’s no guarantee it can’t happen, said Israel Electric Company (IEC) Director Yiftach Ron-Tal.
In fact, the odds are with the cyber-terrorists, at least as far as the IEC is concerned, because the company is subject to between 10,000 and 20,000 cyber-attacks each day, Ron-Tal said.
Ron-Tal was speaking at the annual meeting of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) on Tuesday. Participants in the event included military leaders and security experts, such as Amos Yadlin, current INSS director and former head of IDF Military Intelligence, and General Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and CIA.
The IEC, said Ron-Tal, is treating these attacks as a security emergency, with a 24/7 deployment of top security staff, military-style strategies to outwit, thwart, or fight back against attackers, and “redeployment of forces” in order to ensure that attacks do not disable the IEC’s ability to keep the juice flowing.
“In the past, we had two distinct working states — a routine deployment, and an emergency one. No longer,” said Ron-Tal. “Today we have only one working state, one of war readiness, to deal with terror attacks on the IEC infrastructure, as well as cyber-attacks.”
With that, he said, the cyber-threat is certainly less serious than an actual attack on the IEC’s power plants. “We see these attacks as a strategic threat, not a threat to our survival. Our task in the cyber-war is to ensure the continued operation of computers and systems.”
While Ron-Tal’s immediate concern is ensuring that the IEC is able to continue supplying electricity, cyber-terror is a general security concern, with the cyber-front now constituting a sixth defense front, joining the fronts in the air, sea, land, home front, and outer space. “Today, the cyber-front has become one of the main battlegrounds,” he added.
On the other hand, Ron-Tal said, the electricity supply is more likely to suffer from a hack attack, because, unlike other things like food, water, and medicine, “electricity cannot be stored — it is manufactured as needed.”
And that fact that Israel is “an island of electric production,” not connected to any regional grid in the event of an emergency, makes defending the country’s electricity supply a matter of vital national interest. “We are in the process of arranging to connect to the electricity systems in Greece and Cyprus, so that we will be able to draw power from the European grid if needed.” But those arrangements may take a while to complete, he said.
Cyber-attacks are a problem not just for the IEC, but for the entire Israeli economy, said Professor Yitzchak ben-Yisrael, who heads Tel Aviv University’s Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology and Security, and helped establish the prime minister’s National Cyber Committee. In a recent interview, Ben-Yisrael said that Israel experienced about 1,000 cyber-attacks per minute, every day, all day — and most of them are not from hacker groups, like Anonymous, but from states, organized crime, and terrorist groups.
“A cyber-war can inflict the same type of damage as a conventional war,” Ben-Yisrael said. “If you want to hit a country severely you hit its power and water supplies. Cyber technology can do this without shooting a single bullet.” Cyber-security, he said, “is not about saving information or data. It’s about securing the different life systems regulated by computers.”
Among those states attacking Israel’s infrastructure, many Israelis would assume, is likely to be Iran — but in his remarks, Ron-Tal said that relatively few of the attacks on the IEC originated in Iran, or so it would seem.
“The countries where the attacks originate from are not necessarily the ones we are at war with, including the US, China, and Korea,” with some attacks originating in Israel itself. “Iran is one of the lesser offenders, at least on paper.” However, that doesn’t mean that Iran is not behind most of the cyber-attacks on Israel; the Iranians could be using proxies and other techniques to deflect the traceability of the attacks, he added.
How can the IEC and other infrastructure firms, including the companies that import, manufacture, or distribute water, gas, oil, food, and many other necessities of life defend themselves? More work is needed to ensure a secure defense, Ron-Tal said, and the first thing that needs to be done is to tighten information-sharing between Israel and other countries on the cyber-threats that are out there, in order to be able to tighten defenses.
One method that is being used in other companies is the implementation of a smart grid, which analyzes electricity usage and deploys production facilities and resources as needed. Thus, when electricity usage is high in one area and lower in another, a smart grid will move more power into the substations where demand is high, lowering the supply in areas with lighter use.
Such sophisticated systems can be used to circumvent cyber-attacks on electric companies, said Andy Bochman, a smart grid security expert for IBM. “A small [attack] happening in one place will be easier to isolate, and other resources can be brought to bear and there isn’t the damage that the bad guys were intending,” Bochman said. “It’s one of the motivators that keep senior people in government and industry up at night practicing for it.”
A recent report by Security & Defense Agenda’s (SDA), a Brussels specialist security and defense think-tank, ranked Israel as one of the most prepared countries to deal with cyber-attacks — which, said Ben-Yisrael, it is, relative to other countries. But given Israel’s special needs, the country needs to go beyond what it has, and shore up its cyber-security, especially in defense of its infrastructure.
“If you look at the potential threat,” he said, “there is still a lot to do.”