The Jerusalem Post

Cyber Week: How the Start-Up Nation became a world leader in cyber tech and investment


Israel has become one of the world leaders in cybersecur­ity. One of those who played a key role in Israel’s pioneering role in this field, which is now emerging as one of the most important aspects of our global economy and security, is Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel.

“I was in effect the one in 2010-11 that was asked by the previous prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu how to make Israel one of top five countries in cyber security and my report was approved and turned into a government resolution in 2011,” he says. “That was ten years ago and now you can see the results around you, the approach of the report was interdisci­plinary, our recommenda­tions were not limited to technology, but also the other aspects of our lives.”

Ben-Israel, the director of the Interdisci­plinary Cyber Research Center at Tel Aviv University, is an expert in mathematic­s, physics and philosophy; he earned his PhD in 1988. The center at TAU has some 300 members and is interdisci­plinary, meaning it takes into account not just computers and what we may think of as “cyber” but also other fields such as experts from social sciences. Ben-Israel envisioned it this way

It will be one of the focuses of Cyber Week, the annual summit meeting of the heads of global and local cyber industry. Led by the Blavatnik Interdisci­plinary Cyber Research Center at Tel Aviv University along with the Israel National Cyber Directorat­e, the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the event will be held on July 19-22, at Tel Aviv University this year. Past events have seen thousands of attendees from dozens of countries and over 50 roundtable­s and workshops.

This year’s conference will be attended by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Minister of Public Security, Omer Bar Lev along with dozens of other senior officials from Israel and abroad. Organizers say it is “a meeting point for prominent cyber experts and researcher­s from Israel and around the world. Senior diplomats and businessme­n bring the latest issues and trends in the field and in relation to the period, along with the most updated developmen­ts and informatio­n.”

Cyber isn’t just about cyber defense or cyberattac­ks, which is how we often hear about this buzzword in the news. It is also about diplomacy and crisis management and the new laws that govern cyber issues around the world. This can include cyber defenses, artificial intelligen­ce, medicine

and cloud storage. Organizers say that the first marine cyber conference in Israel is to be held at the Ashdod port in participat­ion with senior officials from around the world.

BEN-ISRAEL served in the IDF until retiring in 2002. During his service, he held posts in operations, intelligen­ce and weapon developmen­t units and research and developmen­t in the IDF, according to Tel Aviv University. He also serves as chairman of the Israeli Space Agency.

He looks back on those important years as Israel sought to establish itself as a cyber power. “One recommenda­tion was to create in every university a cyber research center. In those days there was no research on cybersecur­ity because it was sensitive and secret and used by intelligen­ce services. In Israel, as you know, we have research and

teach cybersecur­ity now in high schools, which was one of our recommenda­tions; that is about building human capital and also starting with start-ups and [business] unicorns and then government regulation­s and budgets.”

It’s difficult to measure cyber power, he says. “You can measure jobs, patents, publicatio­ns, or how many capabiliti­es were demonstrat­ed.” Recently the Internatio­nal Institute for Security Studies published an index of leading cyber countries and found that while the US was the cyber superpower, Israel is in the second tier of leaders along with China, Russia, the UK and others.

Ben-Israel says that in the last year, Israel’s cyber exports have exceeded $7 billion, which is more than defense exports. “If you look at the whole business sector globally, and you look at [the] whole sum and

how much investment from [the] business sector goes to Israel, in 2018 it was 18% and 2019 it was 26% and in 2020 to 31% and the first half of 2021 it is 45% putting Israel first on the list, more invested in Israel than the US. In absolute numbers, Israeli exports are almost 10% of [the] global market,” he says. This is massive.

Today we hear a lot about cyber attacks. Ben-Israel notes that in recent years ransomware attacks have become common. This means “someone locks the informatio­n in your computer and if you don’t give money they won’t give [the] key to open the lock. The number in [the] last year or two increased by a huge factor.” As companies during COVID-19 rely more on computer communicat­ion, this also put wind in the sails of the ransomware attackers because they can be at the jugular of internatio­nal trade. There are other factors as well, such as government­s that support these attacks or criminal and terror groups.

COUNTRIES HAVE suffered increased cyber threats as well. This is because so many systems are run by computers, you can hack in and turn off machines that run water systems or electric power. In addition, cyber attacks like the one that harmed Iran’s centrifuge­s in the period around 2010, caused them to spin out of control and be destroyed. Recently Iran’s train system reportedly suffered a cyber attack.

Ben-Israel notes that back in the day he used to wear a uniform. He says in the 1990s when Ehud Barak was prime minister, he drafted a letter explaining the concerns relating to cyber. “As long as no one understand­s what cyber can do, we have an advantage. I was in charge of MAFAT, the Research and Developmen­t Directorat­e at the time, and as long as no one understand­s it [cyber], one day everyone will understand the potential, and then because we are more developed and because everything is controlled by computers, then the advantage will turn to a disadvanta­ge,” he says. Israel began in 2002 to protect its key infrastruc­ture from cyber attacks. “We had a government agency with [the] mission of protecting critical infrastruc­ture.” He says Israel has suffered threats and attempted attacks over the years but none succeeded.

The next step for Israel is integratin­g the technologi­es we call artificial intelligen­ce, he says. Israel is a leader in AI and this will result in machines that can replace humans in some tasks. “Dependence on computers will be much greater, instead of a person doing it, a computer will do it, and we will become more vulnerable,” he says. “Second there are certain things that you can do in cybersecur­ity that you couldn’t do before, AI is based on machine learning, and so from these aspects, the next step the whole world will go strongly toward developing and applying and using AI technology and therefore the effort that should be put in from the design stage in cybersecur­ity will grow enormously,” he notes.

Israel lacked a government over the last several years and budgets were not devoted to the goal of making Israel a leader in AI. Neverthele­ss, he has hopes that budgets will be allocated now to teaching about artificial intelligen­ce in schools and educating the next generation.

“Only if you take the whole ecosystem, then you can come out with something that enables you to compete,” he says, remarking on the need to create the ecosystem to develop AI.

 ?? (Miriam Alster/Flash90) ?? ‘IN ABSOLUTE numbers, Israeli [cyber] exports are almost 10% of the global market,’ says Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel. View of the Tel Aviv skyline.
(Miriam Alster/Flash90) ‘IN ABSOLUTE numbers, Israeli [cyber] exports are almost 10% of the global market,’ says Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel. View of the Tel Aviv skyline.

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