The art of cyber war

Israelis gussy up hacked websites

Art students send redesigned work back to anti-Israel hackers and ask them to raise their aesthetic standards

Students at Israeli advertising training institute Habezefer, along with advertising pros at McCann Digital Israel, have been leading an Internet beautification campaign, dolling up Israeli websites messed with by anti-Israel Arab, Turkish, and Iranian hackers. The group has been redesigning hacked websites that the hackers captured or that were stored on hacker information sites, like Zone-H, to make them more aesthetically pleasing – even if they leave the anti-Israel message intact.

The project was the brainchild of students at Habezefer, along with Nir Refuah, vice president of Creative at the McCann Digital Israel ad agency. Habezefer is a school that teaches the art of advertising, established and run by 60 of Israel’s biggest advertising agencies. The 10-year-old school has graduated hundreds of students, many of whom have made a name for themselves in Israel’s advertising business.

A “before” version of a hacked web site (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A ‘before’ version of a hacked website (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A hacked site redesign by Habezefer students (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A hacked site redesign by Habezefer students (Photo credit: Courtesy)

McCann Digital Israel is an old hand at creating unique advertising campaigns; for example, last year the agency worked with the Israel Anti-Drug Authority to create a Facebook campaign showing how drugs can destroy lives, using Facebook’s new Timeline feature. The page was shut down by the social media site after Facebook decided that the campaign violated Facebook’s terms of service – because it featured a fictional character.

In this new campaign, Refuah and Habezefer wanted to call attention to the creativity of the school’s students and curriculum – and decided to embark on an initiative that would, if not end Internet hacker hate of Israel, at least make it more palatable to the eye.

“Israel is under constant cyber attacks each month,” Refuah told The Times of Israel. “Dozens of Israeli websites are being hacked by Arab hacker groups and replaced with anti-Israeli web pages.”

Students at Habezefer, a client of McCann Digital Israel, were offended not only as Israelis – but as artists and digital art professionals. So, said Refuah, they decided to do something about it. While they had no illusions that they could somehow convince hackers to leave Israeli sites alone, Habezefer students “noticed a pattern; all the hacker groups use the same ugly template in their replaced site designs.”

That ugly template consisted of “the same black background, photos from Google, bad fonts and low resolution graphics,” Refuah said.

Instead of tolerating bad art, Habezefer students acted. “We collected 50 hacked website designs, and students and staff redesigned those web pages, making them gorgeous,” he said.

Instead of boring black boxes, the new designs feature creative color and graphics – preserving the message that the hackers posted.

A hacked site redesign by Habezefer students (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A hacked site redesign by Habezefer students (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Thus, in one redesign, students took a generic “We’re taking you down!” message and turned it into a colorful vision of a missile hitting what is most likely Tel Aviv. In another, a typical “Own3d” message posted by hackers was turned into a portrait of what the “owners” of a site would look like. And in a third site, possibly posted by Arab hacker OxOmar, a photo uncomplimentary to an Israeli politician is turned it into dramatic picture of what OxOmar would probably like to do, given a chance.

Refuah didn’t say what the political implications of the campaign were – if there are any at all – but the campaign’s slogan, “Hackers, Lighten Up,” gives an indication of what Habezefer students are after. “We sent the redesigned work back to the hackers – by mail and in hacker group forums, and asked them to use the Habezefer designs.” In their message, the students wrote to the hackers that “we would like to end all cyber wars. But in the meantime, if you must hack our sites, at least leave something beautiful.”

It’s a first step, the students wrote in their messages. “If you find that it’s hard to stop hacking Israeli sites, let’s make the first step to working together. The next time you hack into an Israeli website, please use this more cheerful design we created especially for you and your hacking group.”

So far, said Refuah, none of the hackers have thanked them.

A “before” version of a hacked web site (L), and redesigned by Habezefer students (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A ‘before’ version of a hacked web site (L), and redesigned by Habezefer students (Photo credit: Courtesy)

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