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TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israel is using its civilian technological advances to enhance cyberwarfare capabilities, the senior Israeli spymaster said on Tuesday in a rare public disclosure about the secret program.
Using computer networks for espionage -- by hacking into databases -- or to carry out sabotage through so-called "malicious software" planted in sensitive control systems has been quietly weighed in Israel against arch-foes like Iran.
In a policy address, Major-General Amos Yadlin, chief of military intelligence, listed vulnerability to hacking among national threats that also included the Iranian nuclear project, Syria and Islamist guerrillas along the Jewish state's borders.
Yadlin said Israeli armed forces had the means to provide network security and launch cyber attacks of their own.
"I would like to point out in this esteemed forum that the cyberwarfare field fits well with the state of Israel's defense doctrine," he told the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a Tel Aviv University think tank.
"This is an enterprise that is entirely blue and white (Israeli) and does not rely on foreign assistance or technology. It is a field that is very well known to young Israelis, in a country that was recently crowned a 'start-up nation'."
Cyberwarfare teams nestle deep within Israel's spy agencies, which have extensive experience in traditional sabotage techniques and are cloaked in official secrecy and censorship.
They can draw on the know-how of Israeli commercial firms that are among the world's hi-tech leaders and whose staff are often veterans of elite computer units in the conscript army.
Technolytics Institute, a private U.S. consultancy, last year rated Israel the sixth-biggest "cyberwarfare threat," after China, Russia, Iran, France and "extremist/terrorist groups."
Noting that the United States and Britain are setting up cyberwarfare commands, Yadlin said Israel has its own "soldiers and officers" dedicated to this field.
He did not cite any specific targets for potential Israeli attacks. A military spokeswoman said the INSS speech was the first time that Yadlin, who has overall responsibility for Israeli intelligence, had discussed cyberwarfare in public.
"Preserving the lead in this field is especially important given the dizzying pace of change," Yadlin said.
Israel, which is assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, has hinted it could attack Iranian facilities if international diplomacy fails to curb Tehran's nuclear designs. Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981, a mission Yadlin took part in as an F-16 pilot.
But many experts believe the sites are too distant, dispersed and fortified for Israel's air force to take on alone. Washington has also voiced misgivings at the idea of open force.
"Cyberspace grants small countries and individuals a power that was heretofore the preserve of great states," Yadlin said.
"The potential exists here for applying force ... capable of compromising the military controls and the economic functions of countries, without the limitations of range and location." (Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)