TEL AVIV, Israel, Aug. 16 (UPI) — Israel’s military has set up a cyberdefense division, primarily against the Iranian threat, thus boosting the country’s cyberwar capabilities after it allegedly attacked Tehran’s nuclear program in 2010 with the Stuxnet virus and changed the face of warfare.
The Jerusalem Post reports that the new unit in the C4I Directorate — command, control, communications, computers and intelligence — is headed by an army colonel who formerly commanded Matzov, the Hebrew acronym for the Center for Encryption and Information Security.
That’s the unit previously responsible for protecting military networks and strategic state concerns such as water and electricity from cyberattack.
The addition of the cyberdefense division followed the announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in July of the creation of a National Cybernetic Task Force, believed to comprise at least 80 people, to defend Israel’s vital infrastructure from Internet-based strikes.
The division is expected to work closely with Israel’s expanding high-tech sector, one of the most advanced in the world, and its defense industry to develop systems to shield the economy and government from cyberattacks.
Little is known about the new unit, or indeed about Israel’s expanding cyberwar capabilities but it is widely believed that Israel has become the leading practitioner of cyberwarfare.
This stems from the ground-breaking use of the highly sophisticated Stuxnet computer virus against Iran, a strike widely attributed to Israel. The attack was detected in the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, 160 miles south of Tehran, in June 2010.
The virus reportedly attacked highly secure computers and manipulated the arrays of centrifuges, which do the enriching, to self-destruct.
It was a stunning blow to Iran’s contentious nuclear program, which Israel and the United States allege is intended to produce nuclear weapons. Tehran denies that.
Frank Rieger, a key member of the hacker group known as the Chaos Computer Club, calls the Stuxnet weapon “a digital bunker-buster.”
International cyber specialists reportedly tracked the virus through a maze of false Internet sites to Israel’s foreign intelligence service, the Mossad.
German newsmagazine Der Spiegel said Israeli sources familiar with the Stuxnet operation insist it was “a blue-and-white operation … a purely Israeli operation,” referring to Israel’s national colors.
The sources say that a secret unit of Israel’s Military Intelligence — most likely the highly classified Unit 8200 which traditionally has been responsible for signals intelligence — was responsible for programming much of the Stuxnet code.
Mossad did the rest and first unleashed the computer-killing virus June 22, 2009, against Iran, the report said. That was the first of three attacks that led to the sabotaged centrifuges at Natanz.
Iran has made a major effort to develop a cyberattack capability to retaliate for the extensive damage reportedly caused at Natanz, which apparently set back the nuclear program by several months.
It’s difficult to determine what progress the Iranians have made but in March, Gen. Ali Fazli, commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps’ paramilitary Basij organization, claimed it had launched attacks on Web sites of “the enemies.”
Yuval Diskin, the former head of Israel’s General Security Service, known as Shin Bet, said before he stepped down in April that the Israelis have detected what appeared to be several attempts to attack key infrastructure centers in the Jewish state.
“All over the world, including in Israel, there are cyberattacks,” Diskin said. “We can’t say for certain the attacks were against critical infrastructure but there are fingerprints and tracks that indicate maybe there were attempts and they were treated.
“Israel needs to grow in this field since this is something that’s happening today already — and it’s not waiting for tomorrow. This is a threat that’s already knocking on our door.”
As far as can be determined, this battle in cyberspace has been going on since 2004.
That’s when Israel revealed that the cryptologists with Unit 8200 had cracked an Iranian communications code that allowed the Israelis to read message traffic concerning Iran’s secret nuclear program.
It’s highly unusual for the Israelis — or anyone else, for that matter — to admit being able to decipher an adversary’s codes. But a recent analysis noted that “perhaps the Iranians stopped using the code in question, or perhaps the Israelis just wanted to scare the Iranians.”