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Newest hack attacks: Battles in ongoing Mideast cyberwar

The latest incidents of “hacktivism” remind us that the internet has long provided a front in the Israel-Palestine conflict. And the cyberwar is likely to escalate.

By Dalia Othman

On Monday, January 16, at around noon, the hashtag #HackerOmar started trending globally on Twitter. The name rang a bell; the hacker OxOmar had recently published the details of tens of thousands of Israeli credit cards. As it turned out, “Saudi” OxOmar had struck again.

This time, his targets were the Tel-Aviv Stock Exchange and El Al websites, which went dark in what seemed like a denial-of-service attack (DOS), where a hacker overloads a website’s server by sending a large number of requests to the site. This prompted Israeli hackers to retaliate by publishing the details of thousands of Saudi credit cards. These incidents are only small battles within a larger and longer cyberwar between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian actors.

Thanks in part to Anonymous – a decentralized group of cyber-activists – hacking Tunisian and Syrian government websites, and China hacking into Google, cyberwar and “hacktivism” have become headline news. Some people may assume that these types of attacks are new; on the contrary, such activities have been taking place for more than a decade in this region. The introduction of the internet in the Middle East in the 1990s added another element to the Israel-Palestine conflict, which intensified with the start of the Second Intifada in 2000. In the Intifada’s first few months, both sides rushed to deface government and corporate websites. We started to hear about UNITY – a group of hackers with suspected ties to Hezbollah – and the jamming of both Hamas and Hezbollah websites. Both sides were engaged in a form of “hacker tag,” and as the digital tools continued to develop, so did the attacks.

Many of you may remember the YouTube videos of Gaza during Israel’s Cast Lead offensive back in 2008 and 2009, which depicted IDF airstrikes on the coastal territory. Perhaps you remember Facebook users sharing the Qassam Rocket count or the Palestinian civilian death count as their statuses. Perhaps it was then that you realized that social media had become the latest weapon of this conflict. But many have failed to notice the hacking war being waged in cyberspace. At the time, a group of Israeli students – “cyberwarriors” as they called themselves – started a hacker group to “Help Israel Win,” and developed a program that overloaded Hamas websites. This was simply done by taking over the computers of their supporters and using them to launch attacks against the targeted websites. As the war raged on the ground, both sides worked hard to recruit more and more supporters to serve their part in the battle.

As the online war escalated, so did the response. In 2010, Israel added a cyber-security department to its military, one of the first governments in the world to do so. Then there was Stuxnet, a worm that targeted and delayed Iran’s nuclear program. Although little is known about the origins of Stuxnet, evidence emerged that may link Israel to what is seen as the first cyber “super weapon,” having been built for the sole purpose of attacking the Iranian nuclear program. In the meanwhile, hackers from across the region have hacked into Israeli websites. Just two weeks ago after 0xOmar’s first attack, a Hamas spokesperson urged further cyber attacks against Israel.

So far, the attacks have focused on overloading or defacing websites, publishing credit card information, or jamming TV signals. We haven’t seen much sensitive information being exposed, at least not at the scope of Wikileaks. It is uncertain whether leaking sensitive information is the new direction of this conflict, as we have seen happen globally. It is impossible to know the full extent of the cyberwar, but what is certain is that it goes well beyond what is being portrayed in the mainstream media. It is not over yet, and we are bound to encounter more Omars in the future.

Dalia Othman is a digital media researcher and lecturer who completed her Masters from New York University’s Media, Culture and Communication program.

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    1. Carl

      As an ex-IT bore, I’d point out that Stuxnet and the OxOmar attacks are massively different. Knocking out a website can be done by anyone with fingers – get a DDOS program, press go. Stuxnet was a government affair as you’d need very specialised knowledge of SCADA systems and a physical system to test it on. Doesn’t matter how clever you are, you need more resources than a PC and a compiler. So you can look at Stuxnet as part of the Iran V USA v Israel V Etc. battle, but people knocking out public facing websites and swiping credit cards details is just a manifestation of the cultural and political battles around ME politics today.

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