One week after the Israeli army formally recognized cyber weapons as a fourth dimension of warfare, alongside land, air and sea, the defense minister on Wednesday sang the praises of digital weapons, saying that they can attack and conquer enemy assets without leaving a trace.
“Cyberspace enables the attack of another nation state in offensive action, even reaching victory without leaving any fingerprints, even if it is suspected,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Wednesday at the fifth annual Cyber Security Conference at Tel Aviv University, according to a conference statement. “We are already there; we are not talking about some distant future. We have experienced this in Israel’s day-to-day actions against its enemies.”
The reference to offensive action was somewhat rare and it came just two weeks after Israel was fingered as a suspect in a cyberattack against participants in the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
On June 10 the Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab ZAO asserted that it had been hacked and that the spyware smuggled into its own system had also been used to target three luxury European hotels, each of which hosted officials taking part in the international nuke talks.
The viruses, the Wall Street Journal reported, enabled the attackers to operate microphones in the hotels and compress and steal video feeds.
While the new virus bore no overt links to Israel, the Journal wrote, it was so complex and borrowed so heavily from Duqu – a program believed to be Israeli — that it “could not have been created by anyone without access to the original Duqu source code,” Kaspersky asserted in its report.
Former heads of Unit 8200 — Israel’s NSA equivalent — and the Shin Bet shrugged at the accusation on Wednesday. Carmi Gillon, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, speaking at a panel on cyber and military affairs, described a Russian attempt to spy on Israel’s Moscow embassy in the 1950s. He said the KGB at the time dug a nearly mile-long tunnel under the building in order to insert listening devices.
“The policy is the same policy, the targets are the same targets, only the tools have changed,” he said.
Others suggested that the old code had been made public and could have been copied and pasted by anyone.
Brig. Gen. (res) Pinchas Buchris, a former head of Unit 8200, said that “cyber capability will change the world.”
He and Brig. Gen. (res) Yair Cohen, another former 8200 commander, touched on the offensive benefits of cyberwarfare. Cohen said Israel should strive to replicate with cyberweapons its opening salvo of the Six Day War, in which the IAF destroyed 180 enemy jets in three hours.
Buchris suggested, for instance, that while Hezbollah’s “stupid” or unguided rockets were immune to cyberattacks, its guided missiles could be targeted with cyberweapons. “Yes, you can deal with that,” he said.
In general, though, Cohen said that cyberwarfare “favors the weak and not the strong.”
Buchris likened the situation to a balloon. He said cyberprotectors are forced to try to guard the balloon with their hands while the attackers need only to strike “with a pin.”
Gillon suggested that today a terror organization could take over a jet plane and “achieve something like 9-11” without fielding any flesh and blood attackers.
In terms of 21st century military threats, he said that cyber “is second only to nuclear weapons.”
Ya’alon noted that criminal cyber activity is so prevalent today that it surpasses drug-related crimes internationally, but said that Israel has invested in protection and development to the point of being “a superpower.”
Cohen, though, said that even if one assumes that, say, the Israeli Air Force is nearly immune to attack, a strike against Israel’s national water authority would have implications for everyone, including the pilots of the IAF.
Quoting a former, unnamed head of the NSA, he said, “We’ve built a future based on a capability we have not yet learnt to protect.”
Last week, in a historic move indicative of the dangers and potency of the digital medium as a weapon, the commander of the Israeli army decided to establish a new IDF corps responsible for all cyber activity. Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot called the establishment of the new corps, to be headed by a two-star general and on par with the Navy and the Air Force, a matter of supreme importance that is becoming “more significant with each passing day.”