JERUSALEM – Iranian hackers came worryingly close to Israel’s missile warning system, sending the military scrambling to protect alerts from being compromised, its top cyberdefense chief said.
After detecting the hackers in 2017 and monitoring them to discern their intent, the military blocked them when it became clear what their target was, said Noam Shaar, outgoing head of the cyberdefense division in the army’s Cyber Defense Directorate.
“We dealt with them and built another barrier and another monitoring system to make sure we could stop them if they tried again,” Shaar said. He called the Islamic Republic’s cyberoffensives the most disturbing trend in cyberspace today, and urged international sanctions similar to those on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
“We can’t wait until Iranian cyber becomes a major, major threat,” said Shaar, who has been involved in developing Israel’s cyberdefense operations for the past 20 years.
After tracking attackers for several months, U.S.-based cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc. said in January that Iran could be behind a wave of hacks on government and communications infrastructure across the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and North America.
Iran’s Information and Communications Technology Ministry and Telecommunications Ministry had no comment on its alleged activities.
But Iran has accused Israel of cyberassaults, too, most recently in November when it said it repulsed an Israeli cyberattack on its telecommunications infrastructure. Several years ago, the Stuxnet virus — unleashed against Iran’s nuclear program — was attributed to Israel and the U.S. Israel generally declines to respond to such allegations.
Rhea Siers, a former senior official at the U.S. National Security Agency, says Russia is more proficient than Iran at offensive cyberoperations and that China, too, is a skilled player.
“The Iranians have been eager ‘to make themselves known’ in the cyber domain and have certainly done so,” Siers said. But “while it is certainly true that Israel is a key Iranian cyber target, that is different than assessing Iran’s strength across the entire cyber domain.”
Israel’s cyberdefense strategy largely focuses on combating Iran’s cyber presence, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently saying the country fends off Iranian cyberattacks every day.
Iran’s proxies and allies also are involved in cyberassaults on Israel: Last year, the Gaza Strip’s militant Hamas rulers spied on Israeli soldiers with a fake dating app. In another 2018 case, soldiers blocked apparent attempts by Hamas to breach a surveillance camera system, Shaar said.
“If they wanted to do cyber network espionage, they’d be able to find out where our troops are, and if they wanted to attack, they could shut down part of the network,” he said.