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Seeing hack attacks on the rise, Israel orders telecoms to erect ‘cyber Iron Dome’

Reform requires communications firms, seen as gateway to other vital infrastructure, to develop detailed plans for identifying and preventing online attacks

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel and Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Gaby Portnoy, director general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, May 2, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel and Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Gaby Portnoy, director general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, May 2, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israeli communications firms were instructed Monday to bolster cybersecurity, as the government rolled out a new initiative to guard the country against online attacks amid an uptick in hacks targeting Israeli websites.

Officials rolling out the program Monday said they were hoping to create a cyber defense umbrella as effective against hackers as the Iron Dome system is against missiles.

“This joint venture will take the country’s security capabilities to the next level and will provide a kind of an Iron Dome system for an additional layer of protection covering the entire country,” National Cyber Directorate head Gaby Portnoy told a press conference, alongside Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel.

Under the reform, Israel’s major communications companies will be required to implement detailed plans for identifying and preventing future cyber attacks targeting communication networks. The companies will need to adhere to unified standards, according to a statement announcing the program.

Communications firms will be required to develop monitoring mechanisms for providing a real-time picture of the cybersecurity efforts being taken, while ensuring privacy and the integrity of collected data. The companies will be required to purchase state-of-the-art technological capabilities for identifying, containing and recovering from potential cyber attacks.

The reform will also require the firms to implement five levels of information security, though their specifics have not been made public.

“The right management of our defenses is crucial for protecting the public’s interests,” said Hendel, noting that hacks had targeted both vital infrastructure and sought to steal private data.

While communications firms are at times the targets of attacks, they are also used as a gateway for hackers seeking to infiltrate and infect other strategic assets.

“There isn’t a vital infrastructure that’s not connected to a server that’s connected to the field of communications somehow. The latest attacks show that political actors and others identify communications infrastructure as a preferred target that leads to strategic targets,” Hendel said.

In this handout image published by the Israel Defense Forces on December 18, 2021, a United States Cyber Command officer and an Israeli Joint Cyber Defense Division officer are seen at a US Cyber ​​Command facility in the United States. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The State of Israel is targeted by thousands of cyber attacks every year, some of which are attempts to hit critical infrastructure, and we know of plans to carry out additional attacks,” he said.

Portnoy said the past month had seen a significant increase in the number of distributed denial-of-service attacks, where hackers overload a website with fake traffic to take it offline. One such hack last week managed to shut down the use interface of Ben-Gurion Airport’s website.

Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Gaby Portnoy, director general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate holds a press conference with Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel (unseen) in Tel Aviv, May 2, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Last week, the National Cyber Directorate issued its annual warning against possible cyberattacks to mark Iran’s Quds Day and the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

In previous years, the day was marked by website breaches that spread anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian messaging, cyberattacks on companies that host and maintain a large number of websites to maximize the impact of the breach, as well as attempted hacks into organizations’ systems and information leaks, the directorate said Sunday.

In 2020, various affected websites displayed a video simulating Israeli cities being bombed and messages threatening the destruction of the Jewish state.

Two weeks ago, a group of pro-Iranian hackers claimed responsibility for a DDoS cyberattack that temporarily took down the Israel Airports Authority’s website. The breach coincided with the two-year anniversary of the assassination by the US of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a US-designated terrorist organization.

The DDoS attack targeted dozens of other Israeli sites as well.

In recent years, numerous suspected Iranian cyberattacks on Israel were reported, including one that targeted its water infrastructure in 2020.

In March, a delegation from the US Department of Homeland Security visited Israel to sign commitments to expand cybersecurity cooperation between the two countries.

The Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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