Paul Alster
Israel-based print and broadcast journalist

Never mind ‘Iron Dome’; I want a decent firewall!

Just when you thought it was safe to believe that, should our old “friend” President Ahmedinejad or any of the proxy militias he funds both to the north and south of Israel decide to fire a rocket at us we would be saved by the ‘Iron Dome’ missile interception system, we suddenly find ourselves under attack and battening down the hatches against a completely new and very aggressive source; Cyberwar has come to Israel.

It all started a couple of weeks ago when a computer hacker, allegedly connected to Saudi Arabia, managed to retrieve the credit card information of many thousands of Israelis and reportedly remove money from a number of accounts. I remember hearing the news of this event and thinking to myself, “You’ve got to feel sorry for those poor sods whose accounts might have been hacked.”

Less than an hour later I answered a phone call from a representative of Isracard who told me my wife’s credit card was on the list published by the audacious felon; they wanted to let us know and discuss the matter. The old joke sprung immediately to mind about the guy who’s told that his wife’s credit card has been stolen. When his friend asks him if he’s going to report it to the police, he replies, “Absolutely not. There’s no way the thief can spend as much as her!”

Anyway, to Isracard’s credit they acted quickly and there was no obvious harm done – other than the inconvenience to my good lady of not having a credit card for five days, (thank you, mystery Saudi Arabian) – but on that same day, not only was Isracard’s security compromised, but also Israel’s national airline El Al, and that of the Israel Stock Exchange.

I would expect that most of you reading this piece will be somewhat like myself, in that you are able to use a computer but have only a passing understanding of how the security systems work and what personal information it is able to protect. Naively, I, like most others, had assumed that whether I am protected by Norton, Kaspersky, AVG or any other system most of us download to give ourselves a (possibly false) feeling of security, the chances of me being hacked would be pretty slim as long as I don’t download any suspicious items.

So, with that in mind, I have to admit to now feeling less and less confident by the day about my relatively inconsequential personal data security, if massive Israeli hi-tech corporations whose security systems and firewalls are surely a thousand times more comprehensive than mine, appear to be torn open at a whim by one or more faceless individuals sitting thousands of miles away, who wish to cause significant damage and disruption to the everyday lives of Israeli citizens and massive embarrassment to corporate Israel.

In the latest wave of cyber attacks Israeli sites once again appear to have proved easy pickings. I say “appear to have”, because we don’t know how many companies have actually successfully fended off a major attempt at cyber intrusion. This time the website of the newspaper Haaretz was hit, as too were the sites of the Dan bus company and the Israel Festival. But it was also revealed that the websites of two of Israel’s leading hospitals, Tel Hashomer and Assuta, successfully fended off determined attempts by hackers to bring them down and seriously damage the medical records of thousands of patients.

It was a group of former Israeli army computer programmers who invented the first-ever firewall in the 1980s – originally, I understand, to stop different branches of our military from accessing one another’s top-secret data – and since then Israel has been at the forefront of the hi-tech revolution and is acknowledged around the globe as a world leader in many areas of technology development.

Should the wave of cyber attacks on our country continue there is no doubt that serious damage could very well be done, compromising the personal data security of millions of people and theoretically presenting a clear and present danger to our military and defence capabilities. Surely the Israeli government must consider it a top priority to bring together the best minds in the industry to do everything necessary to foil what will undoubtedly become a growing wave of attempts to breach the security of Israel’s major institutions.

To be fair to the powers that be, it has been reported that emergency drills have recently been carried out by the Counter-Terrorism Bureau and also by the National Cyber Command. If I was in charge of the public purse I would spare no expense in granting these agencies whatever is deemed necessary to significantly beef up Israel’s hi-tech security.

These initial successes of the Saudi hacker will surely act as a clarion call to those many other opponents of Israel who could seek to replicate and even exceed his “achievements,” raising the ante day by day in what may eventually turn into a literally deadly game of virtual one-upmanship.

About the Author
Paul Alster is an Israel-based broadcast journalist with a special interest in the Israel/Palestinian conflict and Middle East politics. He is a regular contributor to a variety of international news websites including The Jerusalem Report, and was formerly's main Middle East correspondent. He can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster or at