With this weekend’s events shifting the country’s attention to envisioning the next potential war risks, the cyber-war playing field may once again come front and center.
Unfortunately, in estimating the cyber dangers potentially posed by Israeli adversaries, the danger list may be so long, that it might be easier to assume they can do almost anything and only mention the few things they cannot do.
The main focus is on Iran and Hezbollah, which are considered inferior to Israel in the cyber realm but are serious threats on a playing field where agile cyber offense almost always beats inevitably stagnant cyber defense.
The Jerusalem Post reported last May that Israeli adversaries could potentially hack Israel Air Force aircraft, including the new, most-advanced F-35.
The Post also has reported that a project has started to replace “smart” engines with closed-off, or “dumb,” engines, so that if such a hack occurs, only information, not the engines, can be hacked.
The flip side of this, as the Post reported last year, is that IDF Brig.- Gen. (ret.) Yair Cohen said the IDF could potentially disable an entire squadron of enemy aircraft using cyber weapons.
Israeli drones can also be hacked and already have been. From 2011-14, Islamic Jihad master hacker Maagad Ben Juwad Oydeh hacked IDF drones while they flew over Gaza, as well as multiple parts of Ben-Gurion Airport’s network. The US and England also had previously hacked Israeli F-16s and drones for information.
The Islamic Jihad hacker only had information access, not control. But could Iran or Hezbollah, whose abilities are greater, turn an Israeli drone against Israel?
The NSA was hacked in 2016, and despite lessons learned from that experience, the CIA was hacked in early 2017. Could the network or communications of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) or IDF forces, which assist with targeting and air strikes from the ground, be hacked?
In spring 2016, the US admitted it had placed cyber implants within ISIS’s networks to help it mimic their behaviors and orders, while making slight changes to redirect ISIS fighters in a way that left them exposed to ground or drone assaults.
Could this same hacking technology be turned on Israel by an adversary just as the code from the US-Israeli attack virus Stuxnet has been used for cyber attacks on the US and Israel?
Other potential cyber risks that have been discussed are adversaries hacking Israeli missiles, missile defense or even nuclear-attack warning systems.
The Post reported as early as June 2015 that IDF Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Pinchas Barel Buchris, a former head of Unit 8200, said Israel has the ability to hack advanced computerized Hezbollah rockets to stop them from posing a threat.
Once again, the logic has been that for most cyber weapons the US or Israel deploy against their adversaries, the adversaries at some point learn how to use them for their own cyber attacks. In European countries especially, nuclear power plants, hospitals, electricity grids, water supplies and pharmaceutical companies have all been hacked. To date, they have not been hacked in a way to endanger the lives of a large civilian populace, but cyber officials say it is inevitable that such attacks will be attempted.
All that is the potential dark side. Potential is the key word. To date, Iran and Hezbollah have failed to hack Israel to anywhere near the same extent that Russia and China have managed to hack the US and Europe.
Also, Israel has had the opportunity to study many cyber attacks, which has helped it adapt and build better cyber defenses. Finally, Israel’s cyber offense still overshadows that of its adversaries, and a counterattack could block its adversaries’ cyber attacks from having more than a temporary impact.
But in looking at cyber threats in the next war, Iranian drones and Hezbollah rockets are far from the only surprises Israel may face.