Cyber Week: How Israel grew to become a pacesetter in cyber tech and funding

Israel has become one of the world leaders in cyber security. 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 Professor Isaac Ben-Israel. He is the Director of the Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center (ICRC) at Tel Aviv University. An expert in mathematics, physics and philosophy, he earned his Ph.D in 1988. Prof. 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.  

The center at TAU has some 300 members and is interdisciplinary meaning it takes into account not just computer and what we may think of as “cyber” but also other fields such as experts from social sciences. Ben-Israel envisioned it this way. “I was in affect 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.” 

This matters because this week is Cyber Week and there is a summit meeting of the heads of global and local cyber industry. Held annually and 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 cyber attacks, which is how we often hear about this buzzword in the news. It is also about diplomacy and crisis management and the new laws the 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 looks back at those important years as Israel sought to establish itself as a cyber power. “One recommendations was to create in every university a cyber research center. In those days there was no research on cyber security, because it was sensitive and secret and used by intelligence services. In Israel, as you know we have research and teach cyber security 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 (IISS) 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 whole sum and how much investment from business sector goes to Israel, in 2018 it was 18% and 2019 it was 26% and in 2020 to 31% and 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  is almost 10% of 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 key to open the lock. The number in last year or two increased by a huge factor.” As companies during COVID 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 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 (AI), 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 cyber security 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 cyber security 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. 

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