Netanyahu's Anti-cyber Terror Task Force Is Virtually Nonexistent

Task force officially began operating this week, without budget, personnel, jurisdiction or even its preferred head of operations, who refused the job.

Seven months after being announced to much fanfare, experts say Israel's anti-cyber terror task force is nothing more than one big network error.

The task force officially began operating this week, though without a budget, personnel, jurisdiction or even its preferred head of operations, who refused to accept the job when he realized he wouldn't have any resources to do the job.

Netanyahu - Salman - 2011
Emil Salman

Thus the force was impotent to stop a major hack job this week that saw thousands of Israeli credit card numbers and personal information stolen and put online by a Saudi hacker, though officials say that wouldn't be its job anyway.

However in May, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the planned creation of the task force, credit card information was one thing mentioned that needed to be protected. Netanyahu told a press conference that he accepted the recommendations of a special team of eight experts, headed by Maj. Gen. (res. ) Isaac Ben-Israel, to form defenses against "cyber attacks which can paralyze entire life systems on which the country runs. Electricity, credit cards, water, transportation, traffic lights - every one of those is computerized and therefore susceptible to attack," Netanyahu said at the time.

A source at the Prime Minister's Office said on Tuesday that the task force is not supposed to protect civilians from events such as Monday's credit card crisis. The only body protecting private citizens is the computer crime unit of the police, which consists of several dozen detectives, dealing mostly with the identifying online pedophiles.

The point may be moot, though, since senior officials in the security establishment say the task force still doesn't have the necessary resources to get off the ground: the force's authority has yet to be formulated, a budget is yet to be approved, and apart from operations head Eviatar Matanya, no high-level personnel has been hired.

Brig. Gen. (res. ) Yair Cohen, former head of unit 8200, the IDF's central military intelligence unit, who was the first choice for head of the task force, declared that he would not take the job after he wasn't assured he would receive appropriate funding.

The job was then offered to Matanya, who worked for the Defense Ministry in the past decade, and was in charge of training officers in technological programs. Security officials claim Matanya does not have the administrative or operational experience needed for the post.

On Tuesday, Ben-Israel defended the way the force was created. "It takes time to implement decisions, seven-and-a-half months isn't too long," he said.

Ben-Israel also came to the defense of Matanya, calling him "a guy with a head on his shoulders."

But a senior official in the security establishment, who closely follows cyber warfare developments, called the task force little more than a bluff. "All the lofty talk led to nothing," the expert said on Tuesday. "Two and a half people do not constitute a task force. This was supposed to be created as part of the Prime Minister's Office but no one really believes that the prime minister has the time to oversee such a force's actions, or that anybody, at this point in time, has a real interest that this force will succeed in its missions."

The source added that "there is indeed a need to create a force that will coordinate cyber defense, but there are other bodies which have no wish to help this task force, and no one really supported and pushed this project."

The Prime Minister's Office said on Tuesday that "Matanya began his work as head of the task force, as it is being created and structured. For security reasons we won't reveal the task force's budget."

The IDF trains hundreds of soldiers every year in various aspects of cyber warfare, but these focus exclusively on military intelligence, and not protecting civilian infrastructure. The security of vital infrastructure networks such as the Israel Electric Authority and Water Authority is handled by the National Information Security Authority, a unit within the Shin Bet. The National Security Council decides which civilian company's systems should also be protected by the Shin bet's NISA, but since some of the companies, including banks, cellular phone operators and internet operators oppose this, the legislation concerning these companies security has been held up.