RiskSec 2019: Israel strike on Hamas hackers did not ‘cross the rubicon’

Israel's air strike of a Hamas cyber operations facility last weekend is not a game changer that opens the door for future military attacks as a common response to offensive cyber activity, according to Duke University Cyber Scholar Zhanna Malekos Smith, speaking at SC Media's RiskSec conference today.

"There are some people who say, 'We've crossed the rubicon now... and what will this portend for the future of cyber international relations and conflict in cyberspace?'" said Smith, a Reuben Everett Cyber Scholar at Duke's law school, and a former captain in the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

But Smith said she had adopted "a more moderate perspective on this," noting that in this particular case, the bombing was part of a larger series of deadly engagements between Israel and Gaza militants. Indeed, prior to reaching a cease-fire on Monday, Israel reportedly struck hundreds of targets in Gaza amidst claims that militants launched more than 600 rockets toward Israel. At least four Israelis and 23 Palestinians were reportedly killed in the fighting.

Israel Defense Forces last Monday acknowledged the air strike in a tweet, asserting that the actions followed a failed offensive operation that the cyber actors launched against Israeli targets. This, Smith acknowledged, did constitute an "interesting wrinkle": the cyberattack failed, "and yet the IDF still launched this strike against those actors."

"To some that is significant: an operation that didn't create physical, kinetic damage -- and yet, a kinetic response," said Smith, who is also a former post-doctoral fellow at the Belfer Center’s Cyber Security Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. "And then others are saying, 'Well, no, because we were already in a state of conflict, we don't need to address that question today.'"

Even if Israel's actions did not open Pandora's Box, many observers have called the bombing response an unprecedented event, as there is no previously known case of a country executing a physical attack against an enemy in direct, immediate retaliation for an offensive cyber operation.

Smith said it can be difficult for countries to determine the appropriate response to a cyberattack that might cause disruption or target data, but doesn't actually cause physical damage or cause loss of life. "What happens when a state's cyber punch does not amount to a use of force?" asked Smith. A "gray zone" where it's not always clear how to react, she answered. An "amorphous realm between peace and war."

In their tweet, IDF officials did not specified the nature of the attack that they said provoked the military response.

Bradley Barth

As director of multimedia content strategy at CyberRisk Alliance, Bradley Barth develops content for online conferences, webcasts, podcasts video/multimedia projects — often serving as moderator or host. For nearly six years, he wrote and reported for SC Media as deputy editor and, before that, senior reporter. He was previously a program executive with the tech-focused PR firm Voxus. Past journalistic experience includes stints as business editor at Executive Technology, a staff writer at New York Sportscene and a freelance journalist covering travel and entertainment. In his spare time, Bradley also writes screenplays.

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