Threat Intelligence, Malware

Israel is a cyber target, but also an aggressor

No matter which side of the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict you stand -- or maybe you stand on no side at all -- it is critical to view all media reports coming out of the region with a healthy dose of skepticism, even when they are published by seemingly trusted sources like CNN or The New York Times.

Today, The Times, in its Bits blog section, printed a story titled "Cyber Attacks from Iran and Gaza on Israel More Threatening than Anonymous's Efforts."

The story, quoting Israel's finance minister, focuses on how the country has been able, for the most part, to successfully deflect attacks from the Anonymous hacktivist collective, aside from a large number of defacements and general website slowdowns that have resulted.

However, the report contends, the Jewish state should be much more concerned with the increasingly sophisticated attacks coming from Iran and Gaza. Specifically, the article, citing the CTO of an Israel-based security firm, references Mahdi, an espionage trojan disclosed in July which "appears to have originated in Iran" and has been used to spy on computers in Israel. The story also mentions a remote access trojan (RAT) whose command-and-control hub is reportedly now based in Palestine.

At no point in the nearly 800-word piece was there any mention of what may have invoked such attacks.

In case you don't remember, Stuxnet -- which predates both Mahdi and this RAT -- is a massively sophisticated computer worm that was first spread in 2009 by the United States and Israel as part of an operation dubbed “Operation Olympic Games.” And while its exact impact -- or what future malware it has inspired -- is the source of some debate, Stuxnet “temporarily took out nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 centrifuges Iran had spinning at the time to purify uranium."

Today's Times story isn't the first time mention of Stuxnet magically disappeared from a discussion around the threat posed by Iran or Hamas. Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Pannetta delivered a rousing speech to business leaders in New York, warning them that America is at a “pre-9/11 moment” and that countries, such as Iran, are developing menacing capabilities in cyber space.

Let's be clear: Stuxnet is considered the world's first weapon in the new era of online warfare. And it was fired not by Iran, or Gaza, but by Israel and the United States.

As Misha Glenny, a journalist and visiting Columbia University professor, wrote over the summer in a New York Times op-ed:

The United States has long been a commendable leader in combating the spread of malicious computer code, known as malware, that pranksters, criminals, intelligence services and terrorist organizations have been using to further their own ends. But by introducing such pernicious viruses as Stuxnet and Flame, America has severely undermined its moral and political credibility.

As digital offenses and defenses continue to work their way into foreign policy decisions, it will be crucial to avoid declaring any one country a victim, while simultaneously ignoring its aggression -- a dangerous notion known as exceptionalism. Any help the mainstream media can provide to prevent this from happening will be welcomed.

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