Israeli vaccine research centers reportedly among sites targeted by hackers

Cyber assault on hundreds of Israel-based websites last week aimed to sabotage vaccine development, but not steal information, report says

A video posted on Israeli websites as part of a cyberattack, May 21, 2020 (Screen grab)
A video posted on Israeli websites as part of a cyberattack, May 21, 2020 (Screen grab)

Israeli research institutes working on producing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus were targeted in widespread hacking attacks last week, according to a Monday report.

The hackers did not aim to steal information from the research centers, but attempted to sabotage the research process, Channel 12 reported, without citing sources or specifying how many research institutes were targeted.

The attacks failed and there was no reported damage.

Last Thursday numerous Israeli websites were targeted in a cyberattack, with hundreds of websites estimated hit, including some belonging to major firms, political groups and other organizations and individuals.

The attack came days after a cyberattack on computer systems at an Iranian port that was attributed to Israel. That attack was apparently in response to an alleged Iranian attempt to hack into Israel’s water infrastructure system in late April.

Last week’s attack on Israeli websites was linked by one expert to an activist group with ties to Turkey, North African countries and the Gaza Strip, but with no clear indication of ties to Iran. Channel 12 news said it did not appear to have been initiated by Iran, but may have involved Iranian hackers.

The local authorities of Mitzpe Ramon and Ramat Hasharon were among those hacked, as was the Cofix chain of coffee shops and convenience stores, United Hatzalah emergency responders, and the personal website of Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz. Victims also included the websites of right-wing groups such as Regavim, the Israel branch of Danish electronics firm Bang & Olufsen, and many more.

The affected websites displayed a video of Israeli cities being bombed and messages threatening the destruction of the Jewish state. Despite the number of websites that were defaced, cybersecurity experts said the scale of the attack was relatively small because they all were attacked via a single access point.

The National Cyber Directorate initially said Thursday that it had received reports of dozens of Israeli websites coming under cyberattack. However, later reports on Hebrew-language media said hundreds or even thousands of websites were affected.

The directorate later said in a statement that an initial investigation had indicated it was a “superficial defacing of websites of private bodies in Israel done via a single storage firm hosting those websites.”

It said it was continuing to deal with the attack, and urged website owners to only work with storage providers that have an “adequate security level.”

It stressed that no damage had been done to official state infrastructure.

The cybersecurity service said the situation was being dealt with, and recommended that the public refrain from clicking on links on the targeted websites.

There was no official indication as to who was thought to be behind the attacks, although the images did feature Iranian flags and symbols.

The attack came as Iran was set to commemorate Quds Day on Friday, annually marked with anti-Israel speeches, events and threats to “liberate” Jerusalem from Israeli control. Cybersecurity officials last week said they were expecting a coordinated attack by anti-Israel activists.

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