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‘Facebook, Twitter are the true leaders of the Arab Spring’

Due to social media, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon are no longer countries in the conventional sense, says top defense official

Udi Shani speaks at the Herzliya Conference Monday (Photo credit: Courtesy Herzliya Conference)
Udi Shani speaks at the Herzliya Conference Monday (Photo credit: Courtesy Herzliya Conference)

Many people realize that social media has transformed the Middle East; few understand just how much change has been wrought. Not only was the old order undone by tools such as Facebook and Twitter, but it is those tools that continue to promote political and social unrest, to the extent that many of the countries touched by the Arab Spring are no longer countries in the conventional sense, said Defense Ministry’s director general, Udi Shani.

At the 2013 Herzliya Conference last week, in a session titled “Cyber Security in a Borderless Global Arena,” speakers addressed the risks to state security in an age where borderless networks enable essentially anyone to pilfer information or conduct cyber-attacks against anyone else, anywhere in the world, at any time — security systems be damned.

But according to Shani, cyber-attacks, in the traditional sense, are just  the tip of the iceberg in a world of increasingly open communication. The Internet’s lack of borders has extended into the real world as well, notably to the Middle East, in countries touched by the Arab Spring.

“Our great challenge,” he said, “isn’t cyber-security in its narrow sense, but the all-pervasive network, which allows unlimited possibilities for action… Three concepts that we thought we understood — the state, leadership, and the decision-making process — have changed dramatically in the new computer age,” said Shani.

The events in Syria were an excellent example. “In the virtual era, a physical entity such as a state can become a virtual collection of groups that act independently,” he said. “This is what has happened in Syria. Syria is no longer a country in the sense that it has institutions that rule the country and an organized army. Instead it contains many small, informal and formal groups, organized physically and virtually. The same situation prevails in Egypt and Lebanon.”

Those groups are being led, Shani said, by social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, which have taken on a life of their own, fomenting revolution and funneling the anti-government sentiment. “In my opinion, the social media tools are the leaders of these movements, and they are taking the groups they organize to places that would never have been foreseen,” he said.

In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood never expected the counterrevolution now taking place in the country. It’s being driven by social media, just like the revolution that brought about the fall of Hosni Mubarak — much to the chagrin of Egypt’s new rulers. “We’re seeing phenomena that have no physical border, that rise up as a result of processes that it is possible no one even intended,” said Shani. 

Meanwhile, hacking attacks are an immediate threat, said Chief Scientist Avi Hasson, that pose a real danger to Israelis’ security. Hasson noted that the topic of cyber security involves challenges in four different areas: technology, procedures, education and regulations; as such, he said, “we need an integration of many different operations to deal with cyber security.

“If one wants to deal with this very meaningful threat, each challenge needs to be dealt with.… Cyber security and dealing with it is not only about securing information,” he added, but “it’s something completely different and complex.” In tackling these issues, he said, “the bad news is we are not there yet.” Israel is “missing integrative solutions… there are technological gaps which are very significant.” Education and preparation were the only way to close this gap, he added.

If there was one less pessimistic note in the presentation it was from Dr. Dorit Dor, VP of Products at security giant CheckPoint. Most of the cyber-attacks Israeli systems are subject to, she said, “are very basic,” so basic that “if we can maintain even a few basic principles,” such as choosing better passwords to protect data, “we can strengthen our natural security greatly.” With all the cyber-threats out there, it’s comforting to know that switching from the standard passwords (like “ABC123”) used by so many people can do a lot to protecting the cyber-infrastructure of Israel — as well as individuals’ computers.

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