Media outlets reported on Monday that in a recent thwarted Iranian cyber-attack on Israeli water systems, there was an attempt to change the chlorine levels in the water, putting hundreds of Israelis at risk.
The latest reports come after weeks of suggestions that Israel and Iran have traded several blows in cyberspace. While the Iranian officials have denied the allegations, Yigal Unna, director general of the National Cyber Directorate in Israel was quoted as saying that May was the “turning point in the history of modern cyber warfare.”
An alleged Israeli retaliation to the attack also came a few weeks ago. Reports said that computers in a key Iranian port were paralyzed by a major cyber offensive, causing major disruption to naval traffic.
“This is already hard-core cyber warfare, where you create actual physical damage as a result of disrupting computer systems which control physical systems of our lives,” said Tal Pavel, head of Cyber Security Studies at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo.
While the supposed Iranian attack did not cause any damage in Israel, reports from Iran suggested that the Shahid Rajaee port terminal in the southern Iranian city of Bandar Abbas took days to resume normal activity.
“The Israeli response is really out of the ordinary,” Pavel told Xinhua about Unna’s public comments. “This is really crossing a line. But Israel apparently wanted it to be known that it was behind the attack.”
Israel and Iran are arch-rivals that have been engaged in various levels of war-fare for decades. There is always concern that the tit-for-tat attacks will spill over into a wider conflict that will engulf the entire region.
Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria in recent years. Increasingly, cyberspace has also become a battlefield. In a widely reported incident years ago, Israel, together with the United States, is believed to be behind a computer worm that was unleashed on the Iranian nuclear program computer system. The Iranian uranium enrichment facility’s activity was reportedly severely hampered by the mysterious computer virus.
The worm attack was a wake-up call for Iranian officials.
“In recent years Iran has invested a major effort in developing its cyber abilities after understanding the potential,” said Yossi Mansharof, a researcher in the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Ezri center for Iran.
Israel is considered a leading cyber security power. With a thriving hi-tech eco-system, the cybersecurity sector is a leading one in the country. While Iran has made great advances in its cyber capabilities, many experts in the field believe there is still a major gap in favor of Israel.
Yet, Israel is not immune to attacks.
“Being a cyber-power doesn’t only mean you have offensive capabilities, but also are capable of defending yourself from serious attacks on infrastructure,” Pavel added.
According to Mansharof, the conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria could well be transferred to cyberspace after years of armed conflict.
“Iran is well aware of its military inferiority vis-a-vis Israel and they prefer not to engage in a war but continue in attrition or use of proxies,” Mansharof said. “Israel is also largely alone against Iran and is not looking for a war.”