Wary of naked force, Israelis eye cyberwar on Iran

RAMAT HASHARON, Israel, (Reuters) – In the late  1990s, a computer specialist from Israel’s Shin Bet internal  security service hacked into the mainframe of the Pi Glilot fuel  depot north of Tel Aviv.

It was meant to be a routine test of safeguards at the  strategic site. But it also tipped off the Israelis to the  potential such hi-tech infiltrations offered for real sabotage.

“Once inside the Pi Glilot system, we suddenly realised  that, aside from accessing secret data, we could also set off  deliberate explosions, just by programming a re-route of the  pipelines,” said a veteran of the Shin Bet drill.

So began a cyberwarfare project which, a decade on, is seen  by independent experts as the likely new vanguard of Israel’s  efforts to foil the nuclear ambitions of its arch-foe Iran.

The appeal of cyber attacks was boosted, Israeli sources  say, by the limited feasibility of conventional air strikes on  the distant and fortified Iranian atomic facilities, and by U.S.  reluctance to countenance another open war in the Middle East. “We came to the conclusion that, for our purposes, a key  Iranian vulnerability is in its on-line information,” said one  recently retired Israeli security cabinet member, using a  generic term for digital networks. “We have acted accordingly.”

Cyberwarfare teams nestle deep within Israel’s spy agencies,  which have rich experience in traditional sabotage techniques  and are cloaked in official secrecy and censorship.

They can draw on the know-how of Israeli commercial firms  that are among the world’s hi-tech leaders and whose staff are  often veterans of elite military intelligence computer units.

“To judge by my interaction with Israeli experts in various  international forums, Israel can definitely be assumed to have  advanced cyber-attack capabilities,” said Scott Borg, director  of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, which advises various  Washington agencies on cyber security.

Technolytics Institute, an American consultancy, last year  rated Israel the sixth-biggest “cyber warfare threat”, after  China, Russia, Iran, France and “extremist/terrorist groups”.

The United States is in the process of setting up a “Cyber  Command” to oversee Pentagon operations, though officials have  described its mandate as protective, rather than offensive.

CORRUPT, CRASH

Asked to speculate about how Israel might target Iran, Borg  said malware — a commonly used abbreviation for “malicious  software” — could be inserted to corrupt, commandeer or crash  the controls of sensitive sites like uranium enrichment plants.

Such attacks could be immediate, he said. Or they might be  latent, with the malware loitering unseen and awaiting an  external trigger, or pre-set to strike automatically when the  infected facility reaches a more critical level of activity.   As Iran’s nuclear assets would probably be isolated from outside computers, hackers would be unable to access them  directly, Borg said. Israeli agents would have to conceal the  malware in software used by the Iranians or discreetly plant it  on portable hardware brought in, unknowingly, by technicians.

“A contaminated USB stick would be enough,” Borg said.

Ali Ashtari, an Iranian businessman executed as an Israeli  spy last year, was convicted of supplying tainted communications  equipment for one of Iran’s secret military projects.

Iranian media quoted a security official as saying that  Ashtari’s actions “led to the defeat of the project with  irreversible damage”. Israel declined all comment on the case.

“Cyberwar has the advantage of being clandestine and  deniable,” Borg said, noting Israel’s considerations in the face  of an Iranian nuclear programme that Tehran insists is peaceful.

“But its effectiveness is hard to gauge, because the  targeted network can often conceal the extent of damage or even  fake the symptoms of damage. Military strikes, by contrast, have  an instantly quantifiable physical effect.”

Israel may be open to a more overt strain of cyberwarfare.   Tony Skinner of Jane’s Defence Weekly cited Israeli sources  as saying that Israel’s 2007 bombing of an alleged atomic  reactor in Syria was preceded by a cyber attack which  neutralised ground radars and anti-aircraft batteries.

“State of War,” a 2006 book by New York Times reporter James  Risen, recounted a short-lived plan by the CIA and its Israeli  counterpart Mossad to fry the power lines of an Iranian nuclear  facility using a smuggled electromagnetic-pulse (EMP) device.

A massive, nation-wide EMP attack on Iran could be effected  by detonating a nuclear device at atmospheric height. But while  Israel is assumed to have the region’s only atomic arms, most  experts believe they would be used only in a war of last resort.

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