How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Hackers and Love the Cyberworld Again

Ongoing cyberattacks against Israel by Anonymous and its many imitators are so futile they're hardly worth reporting. But that could change, especially if we become too complacent.

A graffiti of Guy Fawkes mask, symbol of Anonymous, is pictured on April 6, 2013 in Florence.
AFP

For over a year I have had no interest in hearing about hackers. Just the  murmur of the word “cyber” was enough to trigger a severe allergic reaction, characterized by an outburst of swearing and rapid-fire not particularly coherent speech.

Anonymous is to blame for all of this. Not the “original, real” Anonymous organization, or however you call the amorphous group that grew in deep, dark caverns of the trolls on the 4chan forum site.

Those who attacked Israel on April 7, 2013 as part of the #OpIsrael coordinated cyberattack were mostly a copy of a copy of the copy. A group of hackers whose anti-Israel ideology was just a patchwork of copy-paste, they used exactly the same programs and propaganda clips as Anonymous: “We are legion, we are the masses. Just wait and see what we will do to you.”

This “just wait” was supposed to be “erasing Israel from the Internet,” or, in other words, no less than a “digital Holocaust.”

It happened after the initial halo had already faded a bit and it was quite clear we did not need to take every stupid announcement too seriously, especially after it became clear that this was not the original “hardcore” of Anonymous but just a group who decided to hijack the franchise on their own. Yet Jews have learned from their suffering over the years and know that when the goyim threaten us with extermination, the possibility always exists that it will end with a soundtrack of rumbling trains.

In the articles I wrote beforehand, I always took pains to express reservations, and the closer the time came it became quite clear that the promised digital Holocaust would not land any time soon. But when you dive down into the details, the reports of the leaking of the personal information of thousands of people, or when websites come under attack, then the forest begins to fade a bit while you are trying to understand how much of this is worth writing about.

Only when you lift up your head for a moment do you suddenly notice that most of the details that “leaked” out had been on Pastebin or on forums on hidden sites – the “Dark web” – for months or even years. But who has time, and in the meantime the hysteria grows and the reports stream in, like Donald Trump’s tweets.

The entire buildup period is filled with a public relations bombardment on behalf of cyber companies (those that were once called information security firms). The responsible firms among them try to put things into proportion, while the rest are just riding the wave without shame while spreading enough fear to strengthen the threat, and with a bit of luck to also loosen the purse strings of potential customers.

Of course I am not blaming the PR people; one of their jobs is to bring their customers positive exposure, and this is a golden opportunity they cannot miss out on.

The war of the Anonymouses

In the end, it looked to be a show in which everyone was a winner. “Their hackers” returned home with the trophy after managing to take down a few minor websites, and occasionally a few less minor ones.

“Our hackers” were split into two groups: The amateurs went on a counterattack, vandalized sites and released information on ordinary citizens from Arab countries; the professionals stood in front of the cameras and microphones and talked about cyber, infrastructure, the Startup Nation, slogans, awareness and even more awareness. They all received a good deal of exposure and fandom from the media and public.

None of this changed the fact that at the end of the day I was left with a bad taste in my mouth – of someone who, against his will, had become a narrator in the fireworks show that was mostly intended to scare such ignorant natives as the Israelis. So slowly, as the recognition trickled down, I developed an allergy to cyber. But it is impossible to ignore reality, and the truth is that from a journalistic point of view, too, it is a fascinating world. The social, political and even technical aspects and implications, even if you do not understand them completely, can be amazing.

So the “big attack” was mostly a joke, which has repeated itself every year since then, and every year it is a bit less threatening and bit less serious. But there were still two significant information leaks in this year’s celebration, along with website vandalism and malware code injection.

None of this bothered the PR crowd from repeating itself, and the local vigilantes returned to take their places at the front, too. But even though the festival seemed to be a bit of a farce, I again learned quite a bit this year.

So what are the year’s lessons? Let’s start with the vigilantes and ask them very nicely to stop, because except for very specific cases, they are not helping. In fact, the way they operate causes mostly damage to the innocent and to Israel.

This time too, a number of groups of hackers, or individuals, bragged about #OpIslam, the counter-campaign to #OpIsrael, in which they claimed they leaked details of over 200,000 people. It is not difficult to guess that most of them are innocent civilians whose only sin is that they live in countries where Trump is happy to prevent them from immigrating to the United States. In addition, various websites whose internet address links them to Muslim nations, were attacked and vandalized.

So what’s my problem?

I only have a few real problems with all this. First, the security aspect. If the attacks were carried out against companies whose users are potential targets of Israeli, or other, intelligence agencies, then chances are the only thing they accomplished was to increase the likelihood they would fortify their defenses and make future penetration harder.

Next comes the geographic, or possible legal problem. The syyedengineers.com.pk website belongs to a Pakistani company, and certainly is used by people in that country. The problem is that it is hosted by an American company in Los Angeles. What it the FBI decides to ask the Israel Police to extradite our heroic hackers? The same goes for some Iranian sites, such as samsungcenter.ir, which is hosted in Strasbourg. Now we can get into trouble with the EU too.

The moral problem: Most of those in the Arab world whose personal information was leaked are innocent bystanders, unconnected to the hacking. In the present round, it seems that in only one case did the Israeli hackers manage to counterattack through their Twitter account and expose at least three #OpIsrael hackers.

The ego problem, or “are you really serious?” One of the results of the growing cyber awareness is that it has become the poster child of progress. For example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made cyber his new slogan, and he hasn’t stopped talking about its miracles. And he is not really wrong. But we don’t know what will happen down the road, and the technological seeds sown in Israel in the military and academia back in the 1950s and 1960s have sprouted and we now have a wonderful and blossoming cyber industry. Honestly.

Israel is a cyber superpower, but people here are acting as if the exposure of a few Iranian or Palestinian email addresses is what will save our lost honor. But dear trolls, Israel will not lose its honor if it does not act properly and the children on our side beating their breasts are violating the law and harming innocent people. This is not really a war, and not a front we want to be at.

If you really want to help, then find out information on the attacking hackers, and turn it over to those who can do something about it, for example the police, a cyber security company or even Interpol.

I reached the same conclusion last year and it was hard for me to take the warnings seriously. But I must first give Gadi Evron, the CEO of Cymetria, credit for what he wrote to sum up the event. Usually not much happens in #OpIsrael in terms of sophisticated attacks. But it is a day on which our enemies declare they are coming to destroy us, so we are ready for them.

Sometimes the attacks are cleverer, but it is an excellent opportunity to practice defending the country, and the civilian sector in particular, says Evron. 

On the other hand, one can't be too complacent in Israel. Even though many of the hackers are more about talk than action that is no reason to ignore them. The Israeli internet world is also far from being perfect.

There's no magic bullet

After all, there is no magic bullet that will prevent all attacks.  Over the last few weeks I have spoken to many companies that say "There's no way anything could happen to us." But it happens again and again.

First of all, we have to remember that security is hard for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the technology that we take for granted is so complex, that there is no way of achieving full proof protection.

The complexity is felt both at the development level (mistakes will always be made), but also by the service operators and users themselves.There are those who understand it and try their utmost to improve the situation, while there are others who are a major part of the problem.

Often, the hackers come face to face with hacks. All sorts of professionals  who will promise you they are the Fort Knox of the internet, all the while forgetting to put a password between their database and the internet, or just using ancient software versions. 

Take Heartbleed for instance. It was the most widely publicized vulnerability in a field that hardly ever makes it to mainstream media. That's partly because most of us find it hard to explain (or understand) what it is. Secure connections via OpenSSL protocol, if you like to talk dirty.

Back when it was first discovered in 2014, millions of servers and services were vulnerable to it. It's been three years since then, there are still more than 180,000 unpatched connections. I made a short visit to Shodan, the search engine that makes hackers' lives frighteningly easy, and a few searches later I discovered more than 1,200 of them in Israel. It's a fraction of the total number of connections in Israel and it's a great improvement, but it still puts us pretty close to the top 10 list.

We are talking about a three-year-old bug, that everybody (including yours truly) knows about, and yet it lingers on. How many other less publicized, more dangerous problems are out there?