TEL AVIV — The Israeli army said Tuesday that archenemy Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, has been attempting to infiltrate the military using dating and sports apps on smartphones.
A senior army official in Israel's intelligence directorate told journalists that the army had detected at least three malicious phone applications — including dating apps named Wink Chat and Glance Love — that contained malware designed to infiltrate networks and steal data.
The apps — including one called Golden Cup, which offers real-time information on the soccer World Cup — had been available in the Google Play store for Android phones.
The army official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in keeping with military protocol, said Hamas operatives posing online as young, attractive and, in most cases, female Israelis attempted to lure young Israeli recruits via Facebook and WhatsApp to download the apps.
Once embedded in a person’s phone, the malware in the apps can read text messages, view visual content and other documentation stored on the device, as well as allow outside sources to listen in on conversations and take photographs remotely.
“Hamas is understanding how to operate in a cyber era,” the official said. “Technically, they are not that smart, but they have a very good understanding of what Israeli youths are interested in, what they talk about, and their level of Hebrew is excellent.”
The army said the Wink Chat, Glance Love and Golden Cup apps, which were removed from Google's app store in the past few months, were downloaded by 400 to 500 people, though not all of them were soldiers.
While it could not give exact numbers on how many soldiers were allegedly approached or duped into conversation with Hamas’s cyberoperatives, the army said hundreds of recruits reported being approached through their Facebook accounts. About 2 percent of those agreed to download the apps. It is possible that more people will come forward now that the information about the purported cyberthreat has been made public.
A Hamas official declined to comment on the allegations.
Israel has fought three wars with Hamas, which also operates from the West Bank and abroad, since the group took over the Gaza Strip in 2007. Hamas, which is viewed as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, has used a variety of means to infiltrate Israel, including underground tunnels and, more recently, incendiary kites and balloons.
Tensions between Israel and Hamas have flared recently as residents of Gaza hold weekly protests that often turn lethal along the border with Israel, demanding the return of land that Palestinians lost when Israel was created and highlighting the humanitarian crisis facing the enclave. Israel and Egypt have imposed a land, air and sea blockade of Gaza since Hamas took over the territory.
This is the second time that Hamas allegedly has attempted to infiltrate the Israeli military in this way. In January 2017, the army said it had detected fake Facebook accounts used by Hamas militants to connect with young Israeli recruits in an attempt to gain access to sensitive army information.
It reported then that soldiers, mostly from combat units, were enticed into chatting with people on the social media network who they believed were young, attractive women in Israel and abroad. The soldiers were then duped into downloading chat applications to their cellphones.
After that purported infiltration, the army changed its rules on using social media and smartphones. It also undertook a vigorous program to increase awareness among troops of cybersecurity concerns. The army periodically tests its troops by sending out messages from fake social media accounts to see whether they are susceptible to entrapment.
Briefing the news media Tuesday, the Israeli official said the latest attack was more streamlined than in 2017. This time, in addition to connecting with soldiers on Facebook, he said, operatives used WhatsApp, strengthening their fake identities with Israeli phone numbers. He would not say whether those behind the alleged infiltration were based in Gaza, the West Bank or abroad.
The official said the Israeli army intelligence unit became aware of the malicious dating apps in January and has been working to prevent the infiltration in an operation called Broken Heart, either a reference to those who might face heartbreak when they realize the people they have been conversing with are really enemy operatives or to when Hamas realizes that Israel has uncovered the alleged operation.
Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.