Israel’s cyber defense chief: we know who is attacking us and we know how to get revenge
On some screens, maps of the world show what missiles from the United States and Europe look like heading towards Israel. These are not actual bombs, but rather indications that a cyberattack, whether originating – or more likely – tampered with to make it appear as if it came from these locations, is targeting civilian infrastructure. ‘Israel.
While Israel’s military and intelligence services secure its government and army in the cyber world, Israel’s National Cyber Security Directorate is tasked with coordinating the surveillance and defense of Israel’s civilian life.
The leadership is headed by Yigal Unna, a veteran of the elite 8200 cyberunit of the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Security Agency. He told CNN in a lengthy interview that during the coronavirus pandemic in which many people were working from home, he and his team saw a sharp increase in attempted cyberattacks.
“It’s not just a daily basis, it’s an hourly or minute basis,” Unna said. “We are seeing attacks everywhere. The last year and a half and even before, it’s like the world has gone mad.”
In October, a ransomware attack hit Hillel Yaffe Hospital in Hadera in northern Israel, crippling its internal computer system. The attack occasionally caused staff to use pen and paper for patient charts and delayed elective operations by at least two weeks.
“Most of the (attacks) come from criminal elements and from individuals trying to find if there is a criminal perspective,” Unna said. “The vast majority come from there because there is good money [to be made] Unfortunately.”
Other assaults on Israeli civilian life may come from state-sponsored entities with political motivation. In April 2020, a cyberattack on Israel’s water supply system could have resulted in the addition of incorrect levels of chemicals like chlorine to drinking water. Israeli officials have publicly attributed the attack to Iran.
If it had been successful, the attack could have claimed many lives, Unna said, illustrating how cyberwarfare can be just as devastating as bombs and missiles.
“You just need a few smart kids with an understanding, [and they can] cause worse damage than Hiroshima … you can melt nuclear power plants, “Unna said.
In late October, a hack into an LGBTQ dating site in Israel allowed the personal information of thousands of users to be posted online. This attack is widely attributed by the Israeli media to the Iranian-linked criminal hacking group Black Shadow.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing a growing tendency (…) to combine this type of attack not only for financial gain but also for embarrassment. It is a simple evil or malicious tendency,” Unna said.
Unna, however, was shy when asked about such actions. “Of course, we know who is behind it all and we remember it (…) and we can take revenge on those who are behind any of these attacks,” he warned.
When asked exactly how Israel would “take revenge”, Unna replied “in our special measures and means”.
“Israel has all the tools and all the advantages not only in the IT field but in all the other aspects that we can use when necessary,” he added.
Attackers can be anywhere in the world, often obscuring their true locations and trying to target multiple countries at once. This is why international cooperation is essential, says Unna.
Last month, the United States and Israel launched a joint task force to fight ransomware, and Unna said that while Israel is already working closely with dozens of countries, it is inevitable that there will be even greater international cooperation reflecting intergovernmental military defense alliances such as NATO. Even countries like China and Russia will eventually sign, Unna predicted.
“I think it’s inevitable,” Unna said. “At the end of the day, all countries, all these societies will have the same problems and will have to participate in the same solutions.”
Unna said “fast” is not a strong enough word to describe how fast, madly and hectic things move in cyberspace. And while he’s convinced he and his colleagues have the upper hand, it’s getting harder and harder to keep up.
“You have to run a lot faster just to stay where you were yesterday and if you want to be a little bit advanced to progress you have to run even faster,” he said.