Over a period of time the length of which is undisclosed for security reasons, a team of Israeli soldiers in charge of making sure the Israel Defense Forces’ systems are hacker-proof were sent to a border, armed just with their laptops and their brains, to make sure a new system that had just been put into place was safe from cybersecurity threats.
“There were concerns the system wouldn’t work, and indeed that was the case,” said 29-year old Maj. Aleph, whose full name cannot be revealed because of security considerations. “Everyone was in high alert, but we managed to identify the problem and solve it.”
The risk of a security breach, he said, was a real one, as severe as a security breach in a border fence, only virtual, he said.
Maj. Aleph serves as a commander in the IDF’s Joint Cyber Defense Division (JCDD) Tech Center in the army’s Cyber-Communications and Defense Division — a technological operational body that is in charge of providing the Israeli army and all of its systems with the defense it needs from cyber-attacks. The division’s responsibilities include preventing attacks, discovering them in real time, and also dealing with the implications in the event of a successful hack.
“Our systems get programmed one way, but when they are deployed on the ground there are always unexpected consequences,” said Maj. Yod, 30, who works alongside Maj Aleph. “Conditions on the ground are different than what you imagine while you are programming a system. So we need to come up with solutions fast, which are able to find the holes in the system and find relevant and worthy solutions.”
Earlier this month, Maj. Aleph together with fellow commander Maj. Yod were awarded the IDF Chief of General Staff’s Technological recognition for their “outstanding work” and for directly contributing to the fortification of the IDF’s combat systems. The work of the two commanders led to operational successes in the field and worked to advance defense in cyberspace, the commendation said.
With their team of soldiers, Maj. Aleph and Maj. Yod specialize in attacking the IDF’s own systems and networks to weed out gaps and weaknesses before the enemy finds them — and in helping secure them as quickly as possible.
“We are the red team of the IDF,” said Maj. Aleph, who has been in the unit for the past seven years, and in the IDF since 2008. “Our job is to fix weaknesses. We work with all parties within the IDF to solve the most complex problems. Cybersecurity is something that is affecting the whole world, and many are dealing with it, but unfortunately not very well. To be able to deal with the hackers, organizations and the IDF have to innovate and reinvent themselves constantly. And that is what we do.”
The “red team” is a term used to describe an independent group of people whose task is to challenge an organization with make-believe, but realistic, cyber-attacks, in a bid to improve its security and effectiveness in foiling such attacks.
“We must always be one step ahead of the attacker,” said Maj. Yod, who enrolled in the army as an 18-year old rookie in 2006, and made his way to becoming a commander in the unit.
“The challenges we face on a daily basis are far more complex than what gets published in the press or even what we see in the civilian world,” said Maj. Yod. “Each and every new weapon we use must be studied to make sure it is actually not making us more vulnerable in terms of cybersecurity.”
The Cyber Communications Defense Division of the army, to which the JCDD unit belongs, was set up three years ago. “It is a fast-moving unit, very similar to a startup, and deals with a whole variety of cyber-defense challenges,” said Maj. Yod.
Civilian corporations are constantly trying to approach them with lucrative salaries to join their ranks, Maj. Aleph and Maj. Yod said.
As Israel faces a shortage of skilled programmers and engineers to fill the ranks of its booming tech ecosystem, the Israeli army is struggling to hold on to the best of its brains, as multinational corporations, from Google to Apple and Deutsche Telecom to Bosch, woo the brightest with high salaries and perks. The nation produces some 1,000 new startups a year, and there are some 6,000 active startups operating in Israel, with some 320 multinationals setting up research centers locally, according to data compiled by Start-Up Nation Central, a non-profit which tracks the industry.
“They (the multinational corporations) have approached not only us, but also our soldiers, because these are the best brains in the nation” said Maj. Yod. “So, we have to make sure we keep our soldiers and we are managing to, because while salaries are higher in the civilian world, the work in the IDF is extremely challenging, varied, and also for the defense of our country. The aim is clear, defend our nation, and that is the biggest reward we can get.”
“I love my unit, and what I do,” said Maj. Aleph. “The world and our challenges are constantly changing and we are always at the cutting edge of developments. Our work is complex and important, and it is a lot of fun to be part of this, both technologically and in terms of the moral values the job gives us.”