National Cyber Directorate head: Cyber winter is coming

Yigal Unna says all lines of cyber warfare have been crossed and will be crossed even more in the future

National Cyber Directorate head: Cyber winter is coming

The cyber winter is coming much faster than we anticipated, Yigal Unna, director general of the Israel National Cyber Directorate said on Thursday at the CybertechLive Asia conference.

The conference addressed audiences in Singapore and other Asian countries with the participation of Unna's counterpart, David Koh, the head of the Cyber Security Agency of Singapore, as well as leading cyber experts from Israel, Asia and the US. 

“Rapid is not something that describes enough how fast and how crazy and hectic things are moving forward in the cyberspace and I think we will remember this last month and May 2020 as a changing point in the history of modern cyber warfare,” he said.

Unna directly addressed the April 23 attempted cyber-attack against Israel’s water systems, marking the first time that an Israeli official has publicly done so. While he refrained from mentioning Iran, who has been identified as the responsible actor for the attack according to international media, he did say that it was a highly “synchronized and organized attack” specifically aiming at humanitarian infrastructure.

“If the bad guys had succeeded in their plot we would now be facing, in the middle of the Corona crisis, very big damage to the civilian population and a lack of water and even worse than that, when you mix chlorine or other chemicals in the wrong proportions within the water it can be harmful and disastrous,” he said. 

The attack against Israel was “specifically aiming to cause damage in real life in the real arena,” he said, adding that this marked the first time in modern history that “we can see something like this aiming to cause damage to real life and not to IT or data.”

“It is a part of some attack over Israel and over the national security of Israel and [was] not for financial benefit,” he said. 

Unna explained that the attack was a “wide spectrum” cyber attack aiming at Israel’s water infrastructure and that the only reason it failed was due to the efforts and preparedness of the Israel National Cyber Directorate.

“We had some counter measures, so the attack happened but the damage was prevented and that is our goal and our mission; and now we are in the middle of preparing for the next phase to come because it will come eventually,” he said. 

Unna said this is a turning point in cyber warfare, “Israel got our portion and we managed to mitigate it and overcome it, but I am afraid that it’s only the first major sign of a new area of attacks aiming at humanitarian targets.”

“We saw that in the Czech Republic and other places around the world during the corona crisis, aiming at medical centers, health care systems and if we thought that there are some rules of engagement or some lines that should never be crossed, well, all the lines have are crossed and they will be crossed harder in the coming future,” he said. 

Unna added that although summer is approaching in the Northern hemisphere all the vectors show that a “cyber winter is coming and coming even faster than I suspected.”

“We must stand together against the next level of attacks that are going to happen, and the attacks will only become more sophisticated and deadlier,” he said. 

According to the Cyber Directorate head, the past month has shown that there are “new rules in cyberwarfare” and that in the future this can take the form of cyber vs cyber, or kinetic warfare – “everything is going to mix to full scale combat that will aim at civilians and critical infrastructure.”

Unna said that in the wake of this new reality, countries must re-evaluate what is critical, or the “crown jewels” of cyber for each country. 

Still, he said that there were some major lessons to be learned from the events beginning with the COVID-19 crisis and leading up to the April 23rd attack on Israel’s water systems.

“The first lesson is the importance to nationally get ready and prepare for this type of attack,” he said, adding that this entails much more than defending the critical infrastructures.

According to Unna, only some four years ago Israel “broadened the spectrum” to protect hundreds of less critical but equally important infrastructure in cyberspace, adding that “we need to further broaden this to defend everything because everything is getting more and more connected.”

“Risk management on a national level or nationwide should be on a new phase and we have to think what will come next,” he said. 

The second lesson is “the importance of knowing your map,” mapping out infrastructure and controllers, not only the critical but everything, Unna said. “Not just the crown jewels but also the emeralds and know where they are located and be ready and manage them and not be surprised because eventually the attackers will go to the least protected part of our cyberspace.”

“Last but not least” Unna said, is the “great importance of info-sharing within our nations, inside Israel all the agencies” as well as “info-sharing between friends and colleagues in Asia, Europe, the US, and everywhere because, eventually when something hits the Czech Republic, something else hits Israel, it will get  like a pandemic, like the Corona.”

“Winter is coming and eventually we are going to face more and more [cyber-attacks] and the pace is getting faster and rapid change, hey, we are just seeing the beginning,” he said. 

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