For IDF's Cyber Defense Unit, Past Threats Present Future Challenges

The IDF is looking for more than a few good men and women to defend the country against cyberattacks.

Several months ago an Israel Defense Forces unit received a strange phone call from Ben-Gurion International Airport. An airport employee discovered a phone jack that was connected to a communication box, which, in turn, was connected to a classified IDF switchboard. The jack had been there, unsupervised, for decades. A lucky spy could easily have found his way into the defense system.

The IDF's Computer Services Directorate's cyberdefense department, established over a year ago, sent a crew to shut down the communication box. It turned out that during the 1973 war, thousands of reserve soldiers returned and were sent directly from the airport to their units. The communication box was set in place to improve coordination between various units, and was later forgotten - despite remaining active.

This anecdote reveals something about the scope of challenges dealt with by the cyberdefense department. Cyberattacks abroad - the Stuxnet worm in the Iranian nuclear project and Iranian counterattacks against oil industries in the Gulf states - demonstrate the swift changes. Israel's top brass is acutely aware of the challenge. Almost every speech by the chief of staff in the past two years underlined the need to invest more in the cybersphere, as well as in the air force and Intelligence Corps.

Still, the IDF is vague as to the exact division of responsibilities among its various units. In the past two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has established the National Cyber Headquarters, and the Shin Bet security service is in charge of protecting national infrastructures such as electricity, water and the financial system. The IDF takes care of military computers - no small mission in itself. One thing is clear: Since 2010 the Computer Services Directorate is in charge of defense; the Intelligence Corps - most other matters.

Superpowers have competition

Offensive initiatives aren't mentioned, even though the foreign press is rife with speculation about Israel's cyberattacks, especially against Iran. The only time a senior IDF official spoke relatively openly about the cyber issue was at the end of 2009. Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, Military Intelligence director at the time, held a talk at Tel Aviv University about the need to safeguard Israel's technological edge over its enemies.

Our rivals, Yadlin said, according to Amir Oren's Haaretz report, "are offensively and defensively challenging our technological superiority by precise missiles, computers, anti-tank missiles, GPS and drones." Yadlin added that Western software developers had changed the situation so that technological capabilities once held exclusively by superpowers were now available to every government and organization. Yadlin called this development a "dramatic revolution" in cyberspace. "There's absolutely no doubt cyber has taken off as a military dimension - collecting intelligence, attack and defense," Yadlin said. He recommended that his listeners consider the use of their PC, cellular and web surfing habits. "Whoever can break into these, knows quite a lot," he said. "Even one hacker can inflict endless damage."

Discussions with IDF senior officers dealing with cyberwarfare naturally dodge some issues. The IDF has an interest in highlighting the defensive operations, also with the aim of drawing talented youngsters. Yet the officers aren't eager to reveal to the enemy the IDF's weak points, and obviously refuse to answer theoretical questions regarding attack options.

"We need to improve our defense due to the growing dependence on computerized systems, dealing with intelligence and with firepower, command and control," an IDF General Staff senior officer told Haaretz.