Israel Thwarted a North Korean Cyberattack on Its Defense Industry. But Other Sectors Remain Vulnerable

A new paper warns that as Israel’s ports become more computerized, they’re more exposed to danger

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Haifa Port in October 2019.
Haifa Port in October 2019.Credit: Rami Shllush
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Defense Ministry announced this week that it had thwarted a major cyberattack against the defense industry. According to the report, a cybernetwork from a foreign country (referring to hackers from North Korea) made contact with Israelis via LinkedIn using fake profiles.

In this way, the North Korean hackers tried to penetrate the defense companies’ computer networks. The attack was repulsed by the Defense Ministry department tasked with protecting the defense establishment from infiltration by hostile elements.

Israel is miserly in publishing information about thwarted cyberattacks. Lately there have been several such reports, mostly on Iranian attempts to penetrate Israeli strategic infrastructure. The foreign media has also reported on a successful attack, attributed to Israel, that shut down shipping in the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas for several days.

A new article by two Israeli generals in the reserves, Ido Ben Moshe and Itai Sela, indicates a possible weakness at Israel’s ports in the event of similar attacks. The two generals, who are with the Maritime Policy & Strategy Research Center at the University of Haifa, note that in the past decade the shipping industry has become enormously dependent on computerization and remote management. At the same time, the number of cyberattacks on the industry has risen.

Cyberattacks, they write, could afflict ports, ships and the maritime infrastructure in general. A majority of the Israeli logistics chain is carried out by sea, and remote management is expected to increase because of the coronavirus.

As Ben Moshe and Sela put it, “The growing demand of ports to be more efficient and improve their quality of service ... depends directly on the quality of communications, logistics and IT systems. The shipping sector also has large computerization demands.

“These days larger ships are being built, and their operation is based completely on advanced computerization and control systems. The growing reliance on advanced communications-based computerized technologies exposes the world of ports and shipping to a new type of threat, cyberattacks.

“The cyberthreat heightens the challenge that the shipping world faces today: The greater the part played in the shipping and port market by technology, information-and-communication systems and GPS, the more exposed and vulnerable they are to cyberattacks, thus increasing the threat to the entire global economy.”

The two note that “the Israeli economy’s dependence on the ports in routine times, in emergencies and in war is almost total. At this stage, the response being given to Israel’s ports is preliminary, but that’s not enough. The situation obligates the heightening of walls.”

These two reserve defense officials are cautious with their words. But even in their polite and professional wording it’s clear that Israel must quickly close the breaches in the ports’ cyberdefense systems. This isn’t a one-sided war.

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