Exchange rates, stocks, graph - Reuters - 19.5.11
Not only key infrastructure systems such as the power grid are vulnerable: So are civilian systems such as exchange rates and stocks. Photo by Reuters
Text size
Emil Salman
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photo by Emil Salman
Emil Salman
National R&D Council, Prof. Itzhak Ben-Israel Photo by Emil Salman

Israel launched a special cyber command yesterday to safeguard the nation's key networks against hackers. The National Cybernetic Taskforce will concentrate defense against online attacks on the security apparatus, government agencies and critical infrastructure, the Prime Minister's Office said.

The cyber command will have access to a budget of "hundreds of millions of shekels" in the coming years, the Prime Minister's Office said. The 80-person team led by a retired general, unveiled yesterday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, follows similar initiatives in the West so that advanced countries don't fall prey to paralyzing sabotage of their online systems.

Israel's secret services are widely suspected of having waged such attacks against archenemy Iran, and are suspected of being behind the Stuxnet worm that sabotaged the nuclear reactors at Natanz. But Netanyahu said the new unit would be defensive.

"I promise that we will stand up to the menace of future cyber attacks," Netanyahu told reporters without elaborating. "There is not a shadow of a doubt about that."

Israel is a global high-tech leader and exporter, its civilian firms boosted by recruits from, and industrial cooperation with, the country's universities and advanced conscript military. The formation of the National Cybernetic Taskforce should boost Israeli high-tech. It "will coordinate between the needs of national defense and the growth potential of the cyber industries and the academic field," the prime minister told reporters.

Threats abound

Netanyahu's plan is for Israel to become a center for dealing with cyber dangers. And they are rife.

Hackers have been around as long as the Internet has. But the worm attack on the Iranian reactors focused the world's attention on the dangers of cyber attacks.

So did the tremendous security breach at Sony Playstation last month, where hackers stole information on 100 million accounts. Defending the company's delay in advising "violated" customers, Sony CEO Howard Stringer said this "was an unprecedented situation."

In scope, maybe, but not in essence. In any case, that too showcased the importance of online security.

Israel has one of the highest rates of hacker attacks on government servers, and its security has been lacking in many aspects. Nimrod Luria, owner and technology manager at Q.rity ("quality security solutions" ), lectured this week at the Israel Defense Forces computer sciences school - and revealed that while the Turkish flotilla sailed toward Gaza last year, hackers from all over the world were attacking Israeli government servers.

"We have a map showing at any given moment who was attacking the government sites," Luria said. "During the flotilla, all the lights were on. I never saw anything like that before. Each minute 6 million server requests were arriving" - a massive denial-of-service attack.

Sabotaging the shekel

Some of the attacks succeed, at least for a while. In April 2008, the Bank of Israel website went down for several days due to a hacker assault, but the damage could have been worse. Cleverer hackers could have changed the published exchange rate, damaging financial systems, Luria says. "I was astonished to learn that the Bank of Israel publishes its exchange rate on the site using a simple XML interface on its home page," he said.

All this is why the chairman of the National R&D Council, Prof. Itzhak Ben-Israel, needed a year to write a report on the preparedness of Israel's civilian systems against cyber terrorism. The problem isn't just critical networks such as the power grid; civilian aspects such as exchange rates can also be badly disrupted.

Cyber guerrillas could choose to target the likes of the Magen Adom ambulance service, the fire service, the police, the hospitals and the food supply. Their data security systems are in terrible condition "to put it mildly," said Shai Blitzblau, founder and managing director of the Maglan Information Defense Technologies group. "Not long ago I was at a hospital in central Israel. Its central communications server rack was open wide. All those lovers of Zionism would love access to it."

One job of the National Cybernetic Taskforce will be to set policy. "People keep asking me, if the situation is so bad, why haven't the oil refineries in Haifa been blown up, for example? It's because Israel has invested a fortune in protecting against missiles and physical threats."

For instance, let's say a hacker changes key pressure readings at the refinery. Systems are in place to prevent the facility from blowing up, Blitzblau explains.

Netanyahu's plan includes not only active defense against cyber terrorism, but investment in research and development of new technologies. The task force will be getting a new super computer (Israel already has two ), which can help develop state-of-the-art software.

The plan has a business aspect, the prime minister said: It will encourage the business sector, mainly high-tech. His words were somewhat vague, but Blitzblau has faith that the plan will help. "All the defense companies, in Israel and around the world, have cyber departments," Blitzblau said. Buyers of the systems aren't only armies, they're also homeland security offices.

The National Cybernetic Taskforce will take under its wing and consolidate the many data-security units in the army (including many that remain hush-hush ) and in the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service and the Defense Ministry.