Another thing Israel isn’t prepared for: Cyber war The State of Israel is vulnerable to cyberattack, whether a hack of a hospital record database, or your personal mobile phone. Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler Until the beginning of the 20th century, war meant the violent encounter between warriors on the battlefield, and between warships at sea. The introduction of aircraft operating in enemy airspace marked the ability to bomb civilians deep in enemy territory, turned the rear into the front, and created a third arena for warfare: the home-front. In Israel as well, the need to address the physical rear as a front led to the creation of the Homefront Command as part of any military campaign, of protected "safe rooms" in all new home construction, the division of the country into more precise air-raid alert zones , and general preparations for protection of civilians in case of disaster or war.
As cyber has developed, so has a new dimension in combat that has has reached a peak in the current war. As already seen in the Russia-Ukraine war, this is an attempt to use the digital space to gain advantages on the battlefield. The efforts are multi-layered and carried out through cyber-attacks, and attacks on the information environment.
Since the beginning of the war, Israel has experienced a range of cyber-attacks - from attempts to hack the IT infrastructure of hospitals, to attacks on the electrical systems of private homes. These attacks have an added dimension over missiles and aerial bombings: there is no "digital safe room" or physical shield that could be deployed in self-defense.
The other aspect of the war is taking place within the information environment. This is not about "fake news", or what was once called "psychological warfare" and "cognitive warfare", but about coordinated, targeted, and timed campaigns by the enemy. These spread throughout the entire information ecosystem - from mainstream media to social media - each with its own special characteristics, in WhatsApp and Telegram groups, and on gaming platforms like Roblox. The most sophisticated player in this field, by a wide margin, are the Russians, but the Iranians have learned the playbook well.
This dimension of warfare is designed, first and foremost, to create a sense of personal and group trauma, and damage the sense of personal security. This is clear to anyone who has ever watched a horror movie, and then couldn't sleep at night, or might have received a frightening text message about someone photographing their seemingly safe suburban home.
But, this dimension of the war has another purpose, and that is to undermine of our ability to discern what is real. This deliberate flood of information produces both ignorance and a misunderstanding of what is really going on (see for example the fake news reports about the atrocities of October 7); who the aggressor is and who the victim (try asking that question on a US college campus); who is winning and who is losing. This dimension is based on cultural phenomena, primarily the post-truth phenomenon that has caused fundamental perceptions -- such as truth versus falsehood, facts versus opinions and feelings, trust versus suspicion -- to become uncertain. These are the fault lines creating the social frictions between us; the digital dimension of this war is intended, quite simply, to widen them.
The problem is that the war’s digital dimension blurs the lines between our side and the enemy. Some of our adversary’s achievements are attained not through bots and fake social media accounts, but via local forces that echo the enemy's content and narratives, causing them to spread. Right-wing activist Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups are managed by Iranian operators; television journalists repeat Russia-based conspiracy theories as if they were legitimate investigations, and a well-orchestrated kidnapping video results quickly in the "Yes Bibi/No Bibi" reaction that Hamas wanted.
The war’s digital dimension also blurs our sovereign borders, because its influence spreads throughout the world, regardless of place of residence or citizenship. Another important matter are the "mediators of the war", that is the social media companies that actually constitute the substrate of this additional dimension of warfare. The social media platforms, once considered a charmingly open means of communication, have become the thing that allows Hamas to spread their false information and videos of carnage worldwide, while relying on the cooperation of third parties (individuals, interest groups, criminal and commercial entities) to spread them.
Despite the lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine war, the State of Israel is not prepared for a war in the digital dimension. There is no general at the decision-making table whose job it is to deal with this dimension of warfare, a commander of the digital front, tasked with developing combat doctrines and methods; mapping the main players and the centers of power, and, most importantly, assessing damage to the home-front in the digital dimension, working together with the government, the Israel Police, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), the Israel National Cyber Directorate, and the Privacy Protection Authority .
The digital missile barrage
Israel’s vulnerability to social networks as an extra dimension of this war is not inevitable. It results directly from the State of Israel being without the appropriate legislative framework for enforcing the social networks’ responsibiities. And so, we are exposed to horrific content and responses, as well as to unilateral decisions by the companies, against which we are helpless. Our cyber system, which is supposed to protect the digital space from attack, has no legislated responsibilities. No appropriate organizational framework or preparation for a digital emergency has been created. No regulation has been applied to cyberspace, with mandatory standards for the commercial and private sectors. And the result? A barrage of digital missiles, and a ridiculous attempt to address it now through emergency regulations.
As in other aspects of this war, responsibility has devolved onto the shoulders of the public and civil society. Civic organizations have become the state's fact checkers, used by the law enforcement agencies and security authorities as well as by the media. The public is urged not to share and is warned to "beware of fake news". Indeed, educating in the critical consumption of information, and the creation of an emotional and mental safe space is, of course, very important, but think what would happen if the state told every citizen to get cement and bricks, and build their own safe room, instead of requiring construction companies to do so by law.
There is an ancient saying, "if you want peace, prepare for war". A lesser-known saying, attributed to the British war historian Captain Basil Liddell Hart, is, "If you want peace, understand war". Our sad history is full of bloody physical wars, but what is needed now is an urgent reckoning with this "First Four Dimensional War" and its implications.
The author is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and an expert on law and technology.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 13, 2023.
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