Leading media channels worldwide have become a high-priority target for cyber attacks in recent years. In many cases, the attackers can be identified. Some of them are hackers from such countries as China and Iran; others are groups calling themselves “the defenders of freedom of speech and freedom of information”, like Anonymous or the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) – which tops the list of attackers of news media around the globe. This is a relatively new type of threat which the World Economic Forum has dubbed in its report last year “a Digital Firestorm”.
The attacks against media channels may be divided into three primary types: disruption (denial of service), takeover and espionage. The first type is intended to deny the service of a TV channel, a radio station or an online news website. This type may be further divided into two categories. The first category is known as Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) – attacks that deny the service of an online news website or streaming TV broadcast. The other attack category is what I call Denial of Computing. These attacks are intended to undermine the capability of the media channel to use its own computers. Such attacks are more dangerous and the time required in order to recover from such an attack can be fairly long. It does not take much to imagine what could have happened if, at a given moment, all of the computers of Israeli TV channels 1, 2 and 10 had been deleted – while enemy missiles are hitting targets throughout Israel.
The second type of attack is when multiple tools are employed simultaneously. The war being waged by Iran against the BBC Farsi channel illustrates this very effectively. The channel was launched in 2009 with the aim of providing contents in Farsi to the citizens of Iran and to Farsi speakers worldwide. The channel, which broadcasts primarily through communication satellites, has been suffering, since its establishment, from disruptions and disturbances and from interference with the activities of its reporters and operations staff.
The confrontation between Iran and the BBC came to a head in February 2012, when the Iranians had disrupted the broadcasts of two satellites. It is fairly obvious that the objective of the Iranian attack was to bring about its closure and restrict its activity.
The third type of attacks consists of attacks that belong in the category of information warfare. These attacks are intended to generate disinformation by dominating computers and uploading alternative contents. The most prominent example occurred in April 2013, when the Syrian Electronic Army hacked the Tweeter account of Associated Press and published a false news report that a bomb had exploded at the White House and that President Obama had been hit. Within minutes, the New York Stock Exchange plummeted by 1%, obliterating more than US$ 136 billion. NYSE did bounce back later on, but the potential damage is clear.
If past technologies were outdated and even analog, today everything is run through IP-based computers. This technology enables higher quality content productions. The very same technology enables remote attacks against the same components, in order to deny the channel the ability to operate.
Potentially, the attacks against TV and radio channels can inflict damage on the core of knowledge-based democratic societies. Some people may argue that the reliability of the media is not less important than the reliability of the banking system. Heightening the awareness of the threats and challenges is an essential first step. In order to be able to effectively cope with future threats, much more should be done. Firstly, we must understand who we are dealing with and familiarize ourselves with their methods of operation. Looking at current worldwide processes, one may assume that it is only a matter of time before the Israeli media channels face a substantial attack. Consequently, the time to prepare is now, and the sooner – the better.