IDF officer rules out reported intelligence exposure

A senior Israel Defense Forces officer has denied a report published two weeks ago that U.S. and British intelligence services have monitored secret communications by the Israeli Air Force in a hacking operation dating back to 1998.

In a briefing to the press on Tuesday, the senior officer denied the report’s findings, saying that “none of the IDF’s encoded transmissions were intercepted, and our code remains unbreached.”

Discussing the IDF’s security systems, the officer noted that none of the tests conducted by the army revealed the presence of a superpower in its classified networks, although that did not mean such a presence could be ruled out entirely. Meanwhile, the IDF’s Computer Service Directorate believes it is unlikely that “delayed offensive measures” — or pre-deployed threats waiting to be activated — are hiding in the IDF’s systems.

“In 2015, the number of cyber attacks across the globe decreased, possibly due to the nuclear deal with Iran that was coming together,” the officer said.

However, toward the end of 2015 and now in 2016, “cyberattacks have become a legitimate tool,” said the officer. Two significant attacks have been documented: In November, the Internet in Turkey was disabled for 20 hours after Ankara shot down a Russian plane, and one-third of Ukraine’s power stations were shut down for a week. The IDF officer declined to deliberate on the identity of the attacker behind those incidents.

According to the officer, a cyberattack on the country’s more exposed political and civilian sector poses a greater threat than an attack on the IDF. To cope with the threat, the Computer Service Directorate is currently establishing a Cyber Defense Division to “protect the overall capabilities of the IDF in the cybernetic and spectral spheres and help defend the civilian space.”

Within the framework of the new division, eight “intervention” teams, comprising regular conscripts and reservists, will respond in real time to cyberattacks against civilian networks. Eventually, the army hopes, the number of intervention teams will be doubled.

“When we face a cybernetic Sept. 11, we will know how to deal with it. It’s like buying a fleet of water tankers before the fire starts,” the officer told reporters.

A tiny illustration of the cyber threat facing Israel was provided two months ago following the assassination of Hezbollah commander Samir Kuntar (which foreign reports attributed to Israel). One day after his death, a group of hackers from Lebanon managed to infiltrate the air force’s website and take it down. The site was reactivated shortly afterward by soldiers from the Computer Service Directorate.

In the meantime, tensions continue to simmer between the Military Intelligence Directorate and Computer Service Directorate. According to the officer, despite Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot’s decision several months ago that the army’s cyber division will be commanded by a major general and formed in two phases, some within the army have interpreted his decision differently. While some think the cyber division should be under the Military Intelligence Directorate’s command, others think it should be an independent outfit.