Israeli And Arab Hackers Square Off In Cyberbattle

Jan 20, 2012
Originally published on April 17, 2012 11:16 am

An online battle is raging between Israelis and Arabs, with each side unveiling credit card and other personal information of thousands of private citizens, as well as temporarily disabling high-profile websites, like the Tel Aviv and Saudi Arabian stock exchanges.

So far, the recent Web assaults seem to be the work of bored young people venting frustration. But others worry that these actions could easily escalate into a much larger online fight.

The hacking attacks against Israel have had a variety of targets, including the Israeli airline company El Al. But even as the airline's website was down, El Al said its flights and schedules were not affected.

Turning online hacking into real-life turmoil is rare, says Gabriel Weimann, a professor at Israel's Haifa University and author of Terror on the Internet. He says the recent attacks are relatively simple and commonplace in the world of hacking.

"I would argue this is a very low-level type of attack," he says. "In terms of the potential for cyberterrorism, this is a very low-key type of attack done by individuals."

The first attack came earlier this month from a Saudi hacker called OxOmar. By breaking into an Israeli sports website, OxOmar managed to release the credit card and personal information of thousands of Israeli nationals.

Israeli Hackers Respond

The response from a group of Israeli hackers calling themselves Israel Defenders, was swift. They released the personal information of more than 50,000 Arabs, mostly from Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Gulf.

An Israeli hacker who goes by the moniker of Ex-Omer — a Hebrew version of OxOmar — says he is part of the group that stole the Saudi credit card details.

He agreed to speak to NPR recently in a series of online chats. He says he decided to launch Israel Defenders with six friends because he wanted to take revenge.

"I saw no one was doing anything, and I knew I had to get them back," he wrote.

But taking credit card details and crashing websites is just the beginning, says Ex-Omer. He claims he found a bug in a Saudi government website, and he hopes to tamper with government services.

That kind of hacking, says Weimann, is more complex and more dangerous.

"The recent attacks on Israel were hacking, not cyberterrorism at least so far," he says. "They involved an individual. I guess he's not a Saudi, and I guess his name is not Omar, and I guess he's not alone."

Cyberattack On Iran

Perhaps the most serious cyberattack to date was the Stuxnet virus. It was discovered in June 2010, and experts estimate the virus infected hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide.

But the apparent target was Iran — where it caused some of the centrifuges in the Natanz nuclear facility to spin wildly out of control and destroy themselves.

No country or individual has claimed responsibility, though speculation has focused on Israel, the United States, or a possible collaboration between the two countries.

Stuxnet, says Weimann, is an example of targeted cyberattacks carried out in a highly sophisticated manner.

For individuals or small groups, cyberattacks are attractive because they are cheap and require little equipment, Weimann says.

"If someone will not hijack planes, but sabotages the control system of airports like JFK [in New York], imagine what would happen. This is a case of cyberterrorism," says Yaakov Lappin, a national security reporter for the Jerusalem Post and author of Virtual Caliphate, Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet. He says that Israeli officials are concerned about exactly those types of attacks.

He points to the recent targets of the hackers — the El Al airline website, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and credit cards — and asks what would happen if they took down the websites of emergency services or health care.

"If you look at the fact that [the radical Islamic group] Hamas issued a statement this week saying that this is a new form of resistance, and they've jumped on the bandwagon that in itself is going to act as a recruiting call for hackers across the Arab world to join in these constant attacks on Israeli websites," says Lappin.

For now, he adds, the attacks are limited to a small group of hackers. But he says the jump from cybercrime to cyberterrorism is short.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

An online battle is raging between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian hackers. Each group has revealed credit card information and private account data for thousand of citizens. Both have also temporarily disabled high-profile websites. Some downplayed the news, blaming bored young people venting frustration.

But as Sheera Frenkel reports, others worry that a larger cyber-war is looming.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: The hacking attacks that hit Israel recently had a variety of targets, one of which was the Israeli airline company El Al. But even as the website for the company was down, El Al tour operators here in Tel Aviv were doing a brisk business. The company said its flights and schedules were unaffected.

Turning online hacking into real-life turmoil is rare, says Gabriel Weimann, a professor at Haifa University, and author of "Terror on the Internet." He says the recent attacks are relatively simple and commonplace in the world of hacking.

PROFESSOR GABRIEL WEIMANN: I would argue this is a very low level type of attack. In terms of the potential for cyber-terrorism, this is a very low-key type of attack done by individuals.

FRENKEL: The first attack came earlier this month from a Saudi hacker called OxOmar. By breaking into an Israeli sports website, OxOmar managed to release the credit card and personal information of thousands of Israeli nationals. The response, from a group of Israeli hackers calling themselves Israel Defenders, was swift: The release of personal information of more than 50,000 Arab nationals.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

FRENKEL: An Israeli hacker who goes by the moniker of ExOmer – a Hebrew version of OxOmar – says he is part of the group that stole the Saudi credit card details.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

FRENKEL: He agreed to speak to NPR recently in a series of online chats. He says he decided to launch Israel Defenders with a group of six friends because he wanted to take revenge. He says - I saw no one was doing anything and I knew I had to get them back. Attacks, he says, are just beginning. He claims he found a bug in the website of the Saudi government yesterday that he hopes to take advantage of.

But taking credit card details and crashing websites is not enough, says ExOmer, he wants to be able to enter and tamper with government services.

That kind of hacking, says Professor Weimann, is more complex and more dangerous.

WEIMANN: The recent attacks on Israel were hacking, not cyber-terrorism, at least so far. They involved an individual. I guess he's not a Saudi and I guess his name is not Omar. And I guess he is not alone.

FRENKEL: Cyber-terrorism, says Weimann, involves a politically-motivated group, possibly with government backing that launches attacks that destabilize or cause extensive damage.

The Stuxnet virus, largely seen as the largest and most complex act of cyber-warfare to date, was discovered in June 2010. Experts estimate the virus infected hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide, with the biggest damage in Iran, where it caused the centrifuges in the Natanz nuclear facility to spin wildly out of control and destroy themselves.

Stuxnet, says Weimann, is an example of targeted cyber-warfare carried out in the most sophisticated manner to date. For terrorists, he says, cyber-warfare is an attractive alternative that's cheap and requires little equipment.

WEIMANN: Somebody will not hijack planes but sabotage the control system of airports like JFK, or just imagine what can happen. This is the case of cyber-terrorism.

FRENKEL: Yaakov Lappin, a national security reporter for the Jerusalem Post and author of "Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet," says that Israeli officials are concerned about exactly those types of attacks.

He points to the recent targets of the hackers – the El Al airlines website, the Israeli stock exchange and credit cards, and asks what would happen if they took down the websites of emergency services or health care.

YAAKOV LAPPIN: If you look at the fact that Hamas issued a statement this week, saying that this is a new form of resistance and they've jumped on the bandwagon, that in itself is going to act as a recruiting call for hackers across the Arab world to join in this constant attacks on Israeli websites.

FRENKEL: For now, he adds, the attacks are limited to a small group of hackers. But he says the jump from cyber-crime to cyber-terrorism is short.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.