Learning from Israel’s cyber playbook

How the country became a force to be reckoned with in cyberspace

Isaac Kfir

National security, Science and technology | Australia, The World

5 November 2018

From special taskforces to education programs, Australian policymakers should take a leaf out of Israel’s book when it comes to cybersecurity, Isaac Kfir writes.

Israel sees the world of cyberspace as critical for its survival. The nation has long been known as a cybersecurity powerhouse, with the sector a key revenue earner for the country. In 2018, Israeli cybersecurity firms received 16 per cent of the world’s total cybersecurity investments.

However, the ecosystem that surrounds Israel’s cybersecurity – specifically the counter-terrorism space – is shrouded in confusion, both because it is so fluid and because the country has no cybersecurity doctrine. Consequently, it is hard to know where the civilian side begins and the military side ends.

Israel’s cyber ecosystem needs to evolve, as the country faces myriad threats: cyberattacks by state and non-state actors; the use of social media platforms to gather information for attacks; denial of service hacks; and misinformation campaigns.

Historically, Israel has approached cybersecurity through two lenses. On the one hand, there was the military, which focused on sdeh hakrav haatidi (future battlefield) and information warfare. On the other hand, the civilian domain dealt with the protection of data and computerised systems in the non-military space.

Israel’s current cybersecurity system is thriving in a semi-structured relationship between the public and private sector and between the military and civilian domain. This has been made possible in the country because people know one another through their military service.

More on this: Raising Australia’s next generation of cybersecurity experts

Nevertheless, there are doubts that this system is sustainable. As a result, there are indications that Israel is in the process of restructuring its approach to cybersecurity. For example, in 2015, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) toyed with idea of establishing a separate cyber corps. It has since walked away from the idea, as military leaders felt that cyber shouldn’t be seen as a separate domain.

Appreciating that cybersecurity experts must be actively developed and don’t simply emerge on their own, the Israeli state has invested heavily in its cyber education sector. 10th-graders taking courses through the Magshimim program are able to take after-school classes in encryption, coding and preventing malicious hacking. More than 75 per cent of the graduates of these programs end up serving in the IDF’s cyber and intelligence units.

Israel has two principal entities that run the military cyber program. The first is Unit 8200, known as ‘the Israeli NSA’. It was established in the 1990s with the purpose of intercepting and collecting digital communication and intelligence on Israel’s enemies. Accordingly, the Unit’s activities go beyond Israel’s borders – the agency was allegedly involved in helping to foil the Sydney Airport Plot.

The second entity is the IDF’s technological division, the Lotem C4I unit, which develops logistic and defence software. The unit developed a program called Tzayad (‘Hunter’) – a GPS-based system helping commanders track their soldiers’ location in real time.

Through Mamram, which is the IDF Center of Computing and Information Systems, the IDF is developing a hybrid cloud for all sections of the military, based on an open-source code that would allow everyone within the IDF to access the system in real time.

More on this: Is cyberwar politics by other means?

Israel recognised that to be successful in the cybersecurity space, it had to invest in education infrastructure, create links between the public and the private sector, and ensure the lines between offence and defence remained flexible. What is missing from the conversation about Israeli cybersecurity is the issue of ethics, as is evident by the country’s willingness to partner with a host of unsavoury actors in the cybersecurity field in pursuit of its national interests.

Young Israelis increasingly gravitate towards the cybersecurity space. This is because it is well known that graduates of the IDF cyber and technology units often go on to develop and build multi-million dollar companies. This may pose a danger to Israel, as there has been a decline in the number that wish to join infantry units.

The decision of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to nominate Major General Aviv Kochavi as the next chief of staff of the IDF is significant. Beyond serving as deputy to the man currently in the role, Gadi Eisenkot, Kochavi had served as the head of the IDF Northern Command (a key concern due to the threat posed by Hezbollah and the ongoing conflict in Syria) and the head of Military Intelligence, which oversees many of Israel’s cybersecurity units, including Unit 8200. He has also served as a field commander in the Paratroopers Brigade.

Israeli policymakers must, therefore, remember that as important as cybersecurity is, ultimately it is the men and women that serve in combat units who will protect the country from its many enemies.

In a recent speech, Mike Burgess, the Director-General of the Australian Signals Directorate, emphasised the centrality of cyber to Australian security. In lieu of this, Australian policymakers should look to the Israeli model and develop a long-term policy of investment in cyber education that must begin with primary education, as opposed to just focusing on the tertiary sector as called for by the 2016 Cyber Security Strategy.

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