At Conference: Israel Preaches Peace through Cyber Strength

In-brief: Five years into a major overhaul, the Israeli government is celebrating its status as the go-to country for cyber security know-how and promoting its own recipe for success to other countries. But how many of them can or will follow suit?  

Tel-Aviv, Israel — The specter of Russian hacking of the U.S. election, an epidemic of ransomware and a drumbeat of massive data breaches might hang like a shroud over the U.S. Capitol. But almost 6,000 miles away, there’s a party going on in sunny Tel Aviv this week, as one of the U.S.’s closest allies celebrates its success against the forces of cyber darkness and preaches its own story as a model for others.

Entrepreneurs, executives and policy makers have come to this sun-drenched, sea-side city in droves for Cyber Week, an annual celebration of all things security that has become Israel’s premiere cyber security talent showcase. In speech after speech, Israeli officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down have regaled their guests with stories of the scrappy nation’s rise to become one of the world’s most respected authorities on offensive and defensive cyber operations. It is a model that Israel is looking to evangelize and export to allies that seek an edge in what is shaping up to be the theater for geopolitical action in the first half of the 21st century.

“The need for cyber security is growing exponentially,” Israeli Premiere Benjamin Netanyahu told a crowd on the campus of Tel Aviv University on Monday. He and other top cyber security officials touted the country’s good fortune as the realization of a five-year plan hatched by the Prime Minister’s office to elevate the status of cyber security and apply military style discipline to both cyber offense and defense, establishing Israel as what Netanyahu called a “top five cyber power.”

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, considered the father of Israel’s cyber security program, said the seeds of the nation’s current status as a cyber super power were sown 30 years ago as an outgrowth in Israeli intelligence’s interest in gleaning information from computer based files. By the early 1990s, the nation had begun to grasp the awesome power of computer based attacks, including the possibility of using attacks on computers to “shut off electricity” in an adversary nation in the event of an attack.

The result was the formation of the Israeli National Information Security Agency (NISA), starting in 2002, to vet and secure what the government identified as 36 ‘critical industries’ without which the country could not function. They included transportation, energy generation and distribution, water, healthcare and more.

The next major shift came in 2012, following the Stuxnet attack of 2010, when Ben-Israel said the country’s government realized that the worm, which targeted centrifuges at Iran’s Natan Uranium enrichment facility, would prompt a jump in the level of similar, cyber-physical threats from Israel’s adversaries. “Stuxnet changed the picture totally,” Ben-Israel said, speaking of awareness of the destructive capability of cyber threats.

The result, on display at Cyber Week, was the development of what might be called the “Israeli way,” a potent mix of tight government oversight and large-scale public investment in education, talent identification and development and R&D. In recent years, that effort has been matched by private dollars, which have poured into a vibrant private sector security industry from Israeli, US and EU venture capital firms as well as western firms like Cisco, Intel, IBM, Google and others who have moved Research and Development to Israel to tap its wellspring cyber security talent–graduates of elite units like the IDF’s Unit 8200.

The Israeli government begins identifying gifted students as early as grade school, while the country’s compulsory military service requirement gives the government its pick of that talent when it reaches conscription age. After fighter pilots, recruits with talent in mathematics, computer science, encryption and other relevant skills are the most sought after, a senior IDF official told reporters on Sunday.

To guard against the “revolving door” of talent that is common in the U.S., Israel has increasingly cultivated a “boutique” approach to nurturing cyber security talent, with liberal policies that allow soldiers to become entrepreneurs without cutting ties to the military or military service, said Rami Efrati, President of the firm Firmitas and former Head the Civilian Division of the Israel National Cyber Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office. Soldiers understand that the longer they serve, the more valuable they become when they eventually enter the marketplace.

As more security firms succeeded on their own, or were acquired, founders, working through VC firms like Team8, have poured money back into companies of more recent military graduates, creating a virtuous cycle of security investment.

The country’s unique approach is as much a product of its circumstances as anything else. A small nation of just 8 million people occupying a sliver of land, Israel has diplomatic ties only with neighbors Jordan and Egypt, but is otherwise surrounded by countries that wish it ill. That has forced the country to be on alert and to try to anticipate the next crisis. It has also meant investing in “human resources” to compensate for its lack of boots on the ground – skills that are paying dividends in the race to develop cyber talent, Efrati said.

As successful as the model has been in Israel, officials here said it wasn’t clear that the same model could work in a country the size of the U.S. Dr. Evyatar Matanya, the Head of the Israeli Government’s Cyber Bureau said the Israel model was more applicable to small and developing nations that haven’t yet developed the talent to manage cyber security threats, rather than to global powers like the U.S. “I try not to advise super powers on what they should do,” he said.

Experts at the show raised doubts about how translatable the Israeli model will be, citing unique factors like the country’s universal military service, the country’s precarious existence and the deep bonds of trust between the military and the public, which simply don’t exist elsewhere.

“I think it would be difficult for us to do at the scale that we operate at,” said Michael Daniel, President of the Cyber Threat Alliance and Cyber Security Advisor in the Obama Administration. “I’m not even sure its desirable in our system,” he said.

Still Israel is hoping to export that know how to its allies. Speaking on Monday, Prime Minister Netanyahu said his government was ready to cooperate with other countries and governments on issues like cyber readiness and talent development. “In general, we’re better together,” Netanyahu said. He will soon be meeting with India’s Prime Minister with cyber security high on the list of topics to discuss.

Cyber has proven to be a bridge to better relations with a wide range of nations who have come seeking talent and advice from the small nation. That, in turn, has Israel facing outward. “Israel for security has always had to count on ourselves. Now we must cooperate with others,” Efrati said.

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