TEL AVIV, Israel — In the few quiet days separating the Petraeus scandal from the explosion of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, a gaggle of geeks with an interest in both events gathered in Tel Aviv at a conference called HLS2012.
The subject: cyber-security. Or, in other words, monsters in the night. There they were, in their tweed jackets and sturdy-framed glasses, talking about what no one wants to talk about.
"The next war will use digital elements — but will not be a digital war," said Dr. Nimrod Kozlovski, a consultant on law and information technology and information security, with eerie prescience.
In fact, much of the discussion in conference corridors puts in chilling perspective the cyber chatter that broke out at the start of the current Israel-Gaza conflict.
It made the news that Israel announced its Gaza operation over Twitter — and the Al Qassem brigades replied, through missiles and mocking cybernetic missives. The Anonymous hacker collective played its usual part, attacking various websites in support of the Palestinians.
But all this is practically cute to those who attended the conference.
What would a real digital war look like?
Like the most terrifying sci-fi movie you've ever seen. The collapse of international banking systems. Pilots desperately pushing buttons as their planes fall from of the sky. Blood types rearranging in hospital blood banks.
Among this crowd, 9/11 is old news, old tech. Why train terrorist pilots if you can quite simply reprogram an aircraft?
“You have to take into account that any cyber attack can be a precursor to a traditional attack" Tom Ridge, the former US Secretary of Homeland Security, told GlobalPost at the conference. "Just think of the ubiquity of the internet. It is the backbone of your world, of commerce, of defense. We’ve put everything on digital platforms."
Ridge says terror and cyber-warfare are the two greatest challenges facing the Western world. "Cyber is so potentially disruptive that it may prove even more serious than terror," he said.
The governments of Israel and the United States deflect thousands of attacks daily, millions a year. And the internet is so porous, Ridge emphasizes, that "you have to operate as if the attacker is already within your system."
Boaz Dolev, the man who for 13 years was successfully in charge of Israel's cyber-security, has no problem recounting what keeps him up at night.
“A biological strike initiated by cyber attack … someone taking control of the platform and infusing toxins into the water system, someone taking control of power networks, GPS systems. My nightmare is that a lot of people would be killed."
Kozlovski sneers at those who remain concerned about safeguarding such antiquated things like email. Those days are over, he says, anyone can take over your email.
"'My email doesn't interest anyone,'" Kozlovski said, mimicking the numerous times he has heard it from others. “Yeah, that's true. But they're in it just because they can. It's easy. It's nothing. When you leave here, we could be following anyone in this room who has a cellphone."
As if to prove his point, another attendee, Israeli computer security expert Keren Elazari, made waves last October by quietly hacking the cellphones of unsuspecting participants at WIRED 2012.
Dolev said that cyber war "is about intelligence gathering, not demolishing other nations' operations."
Asked if he is surprised the CIA director was felled by the simplest internet trap, Ridge is temporarily at a loss for words. "I guess not," he said, adding that Petraeus was "an excellent public servant."
"No, I'm not surprised," said Richard Puckett, a soft-spoken, youthful-looking man of 45. He is the Chief Security Architect for General Electric and a frequent participant in international exercises on cybersecurity and the protection of critical infrastructures. "What we're seeing is the collision of the personal and the professional personalities of people in a platform that does not account for privacy."
"The availability of free Gmail grants people the perception of anonymity and gives people an entirely false sense of privacy. You have a voice in your head, you have dreams, but the minute you wrote an email, your thoughts take on a digital form, and digital is forever," he said.
"Very few people live their lives with an understanding of who we are as a digital identity."
Still, what keeps Puckett up at night is the potential loss of life.
"Medical equipment failing, planes falling out of the sky, taking health systems offline, creating chaos and disruption and mayhem. And plenty more dangerous scenarios that I won't discuss here. Rearranging blood types in a blood bank.”
Puckett likes to quote the sci-fi writer and geek guru William Gibson, who said, "The future is already here. It's just not widely distributed yet."
The most visible contingent at the conference was that of Brazil. The South American colossus is gearing up for four major events in the next four years, involving masses of people and providing attractive targets for terrorists: the Confederations Cup, the pope's World Youth Day, the soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.
Brazil has acquired 14 Israeli-made drones to police the events — a strategy Ridge thinks would work well on the US border with Mexico, where the "triangulation" of sensors, probes and unmanned surveillance could spare the United States the more expensive and less effective use of manpower.
Meanwhile, Israel and Hamas continue to tussle over a possible cease-fire. The Twitterverse is inflamed by the use of itself for propaganda and message-forming.