ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
An online battle is raging between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian hackers. Each group has revealed credit card information, and private account data, for thousand of citizens. Both have also temporarily disabled high-profile websites. Some downplayed the news, blaming bored young people venting frustration.
But as Sheera Frenkel reports, others worry that a larger cyberwar is looming.
SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: The hacking attacks that hit Israel recently had a variety of targets, one of which was the Israeli airline company El Al. But even as the website for the company was down, El Al tour operators here in Tel Aviv were doing a brisk business. The company said its flights and schedules were unaffected.
Turning online hacking into real-life turmoil is rare, says Gabriel Weimann, a professor at Haifa University and author of "Terror on the Internet." He says the recent attacks are relatively simple, and commonplace in the world of hacking.
PROFESSOR GABRIEL WEIMANN: I would argue this is a very low-level type of attack. In terms of the potential for cyberterrorism, this is a very low-key type of attack, done by individuals.
FRENKEL: The first attack came earlier this month from a Saudi hacker called OxOmar. By breaking into an Israeli sports website, OxOmar managed to release the credit card and personal information of thousands of Israeli nationals. The response, from a group of Israeli hackers calling themselves Israel Defenders, was swift - the release of personal information of more than 50,000 Arab nationals.
(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)
FRENKEL: An Israeli hacker who goes by the moniker of ExOmer – a Hebrew version of OxOmar – says he is part of the group that stole the Saudi credit card details.
(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)
FRENKEL: He agreed to speak to NPR recently, in a series of online chats. He says he decided to launch Israel Defenders with a group of six friends because he wanted to take revenge. He says: I saw no one was doing anything, and I knew I had to get them back. Attacks - he says - are just the beginning. He claims he found a bug in the website of the Saudi government yesterday that he hopes to take advantage of.
But taking credit card details, and crashing websites, is not enough, says ExOmer. He wants to be able to enter and tamper with government services.
That kind of hacking, says professor Weimann, is more complex - and more dangerous.
WEIMANN: The recent attacks on Israel were hacking, not cyberterrorism - at least, so far. They involved an individual. I guess he's not a Saudi, and I guess his name is not Omar. And I guess he is not alone.
FRENKEL: Cyberterrorism, says Weimann, involves a politically motivated group - possibly with government backing - that launches attacks that destabilize, or cause extensive damage.
The Stuxnet virus, largely seen as the largest and most complex act of cyberwarfare to date, was discovered in June 2010. Experts estimate the virus infected hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide - with the biggest damage in Iran, where it caused the centrifuges in the Natanz nuclear facility to spin wildly out of control and destroy themselves. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Only some of the centrifuges were destroyed.]
Stuxnet, says Weimann, is an example of targeted cyberwarfare carried out in the most sophisticated manner to date. For terrorists, he says, cyberwarfare is an attractive alternative that's cheap and requires little equipment.
WEIMANN: Somebody will not hijack planes, but sabotage the control system of airports like JFK or - just imagine what can happen. This is the case of cyberterrorism.
FRENKEL: Yaakov Lappin, a national security reporter for the Jerusalem Post and author of "Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet," says that Israeli officials are concerned about exactly those types of attacks.
He points to the recent targets of the hackers – the El Al airlines website, the Israeli stock exchange and credit cards - and asks what would happen if they took down the websites of emergency services or health care.
YAAKOV LAPPIN: If you look at the fact that Hamas issued a statement this week saying that this is a new form of resistance, and they've jumped on the bandwagon, that in itself is going to act as a recruiting call for hackers across the Arab world to join in this constant attacks on Israeli websites.
FRENKEL: For now, he adds, the attacks are limited to a small group of hackers. But he says the jump from cybercrime to cyberterrorism is short.
For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.