Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Shadow War

The world's military powers are spending billions on information warfare (IW), but--for obvious reasons--they don't publicize their capabilities. As a result, we only get occasional glimpses of the growing battle in cyberspace, as illustrated by Russian attacks against Estonian computer networks in 2007, and more recently, against Georgian systems during the run-up to this summer's war with the Tbilisi government.

American capabilities in IW remain equally guarded, but there are occasional displays that make their way into the public arena. Earlier this year, at least three of Al Qaida's most important propaganda websites were shut down for over a month, after a series of cyber-attacks. While the culprits were never officially identified, western intelligence agencies were at the top of the list. The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been following terrorist communications for years and has robust--though little-publicized--capabilities in cyber-attack.

Israel has also been busy in recent months, as detailed in a couple of items posted at Strategy Page. First, Israeli spooks hacked into the Syrian phone network and sent thousands of voice and text messages, offering a $10 million reward for information on missing Israeli soldiers. Syrian intelligence viewed the intrusion differently, speculating that the Israelis were actually trying to recruit spies.

The Israelis have also been active in Lebanon, inserting messages into Hizballah radio and TV broadcasts for the past two years. The Israeli messages point out errors in terrorist claims, or simply ridicule the organization. Israeli intelligence has also mounted a spam campaign against the insurgent's cell phone network, disseminating anti-Hizballah messages via voice and text.

These campaigns have an obvious propaganda value, but they also send a clear message to Israel's foes. The same tools used to "hack" terrorist communications networks can also be used to take them down. And so far, the insurgents seem (almost) powerless to stop it.

Information operations will be an essential part of all future conflicts, including those in the Middle East. Based on what little we've seen, the Israelis seem well-prepared to exploit the cyber realm in future campaigns against their foes.

Lest we forget, Syria's air defense network (reportedly) went dark before last year's IAF attack on that nuclear facility. As a result, Israeli jets flew unscathed across hundreds of miles of hostile territory, and returned without a scratch. That suggests a highly successful, targeted network attack that paralyzed Syrian air defenses and their supporting C2 network. It's the same technique that could be applied to Iran, as part of a strike against their nuclear facilities.

ADDENDUM: Speaking of Iran, it seems that the Israelis are already at work on that IW target. The Tehran government has admitted that a recently-executed spy allowed Israeli technicians to install monitoring devices on computer equipment bought by Iran. Apparently, some of the IT gear was delivered to facilites supporting Tehran's weapons program. More than likely, that intelligence coup provided valuable insights into Iran's nuclear development effort--and, quite possibly, the ability to "crash" those computer networks at a later date.

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