In 2013, Israeli authorities launched the Digital Israel project, aimed at dramatically expanding the country’s fibre-optic network and making all government interactions paperless. At the time, US security cyber-security expert Paul de Souza warned that, unless extreme precautions were taken, doing so could result in Israel being not only the world’s most digitalised nation, but the most hacked one, too. “You can’t compromise national security just because you want the country to be extremely innovative,” Mr de Souza told Bloomberg.
By 2020, Digital Israel had mixed success – most government services had been digitised, but less than 50 per cent of the country was connected to fibre-optic, well short of the original goal of 70 per cent. Worse still, Mr de Souza’s fears had come true: a study by US-based F5 Labs found Israel to be the most targeted country for cyber attacks on the planet.
The threats against it are only growing, as Israelis found on March 14, when a huge cyber attack on the country rendered them unable to access any government websites for more than an hour. The situation spurred Israel’s National Cyber Directorate (NCD) to declare a state of emergency in order to study the extent of the damage.
To make the country more resilient to such threats, on Monday the NCD and Israel’s Communications Ministry ordered Israeli communications firms to formulate plans to step up their cyber-security systems. The goal, as Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel described it, is to “create a kind of ‘Iron Dome’ from cyber-security attacks”. The Iron Dome is Israel’s advanced system for defending its cities from rocket attacks launched by militant groups from adjacent territories.
As with rocket attacks by extremists, however, cyber-attacks are not limited to one part of the Middle East. The region saw 161 million malware attacks in the first half of 2021. They are often intended to undo political progress, too. The UAE’s cyber-security chief, Mohamed Al Kuwaiti, for instance, noted that the Emirates was targeted by a spate of cyber-attacks after it signed the historic Abraham Accords.
As with conventional defence, however, the best way to respond to cyber threats is through even stronger co-operation. In recent years, countries have collaborated to build a more robust, regional resilience to hacking. At the Dubai Expo, for example, the NCD partnered with the UAE’s Cybersecurity Council to conduct an unprecedented international drill, involving seven countries, to simulate an attack on the aviation sector.
Steps like these will be critical to making cyber security part of the regional agenda. The Middle East is the fastest-growing region in the world when it comes to internet adoption, with over 98 per cent of the GCC’s population already connected. While the opportunities offered by this expansion in internet users are significant, the threats will continue to grow alongside them, and they, like the internet itself, will transcend most national borders. Securing the cyber landscape and ensuring that there need not be a trade-off between extreme innovation and national security, as Mr de Souza put it, will depend on countries working together, in addition to bolstering their domestic defences.