Israeli hackers ‘scary talented,’ says security expert

Antonio Forzieri, a top executive at Symantec, praises combination of speed, knowledge, skill of Israeli cyber-experts

Antonio Forzieri (standing) checks out the work of one of the Israeli teams in the Cyber Challenge contest (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Antonio Forzieri (standing) checks out the work of one of the Israeli teams in the Cyber Challenge contest (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israeli hackers are young and scary — scary talented, that is. That’s the observation of a man who knows what hacking is all about. Antonio Forzieri. EMEA Cyber Security head for security firm Symantec. “I’ve seen hackers at work all over Europe and the US, and Israeli hackers are younger, faster, and smarter than those in almost any other country. To me, that combination of intelligence, youth, and ability is scary. We had better make sure they use their powers for good.”

Forzieri had an opportunity to watch about 60 of Israel’s best hackers split into several dozen teams during the second annual Cyber Challenge, sponsored by Symantec, EMC-RSA, and Israel Aircraft Industries. The teams were given an opportunity to run rampant over a network set up for them by Symantec that duplicated a banking ATM network. The teams were given milestones — the time it took them to hack points inside the network, credit given for creative methods of busting a roadblock, and others — for a total of 80 specific missions.

While “hacker” is usually understood as referring to people who illicitly work their way into other people’s computers or servers, professionals like Forzieri use the term for experts who have hacking skills but might use them for either good or evil.

Forzieri’s effusive praise for Israeli hackers isn’t a matter of politeness to the “home teams,” or an attempt to ingratiate himself with his Israeli hosts. Forzieri knows the Cyber Challenge very well — last year he was a member of a team that took the top prize in the European Cyber Challenge finals.

The winners were Tomer Zait (26), Nimrod Levi(22), and Naftali Rosenbaum (19), members of the Israelites hacker team.

By putting participants in the hacker’s shoes, said Symantec, it enables them to understand their targets, technology and thought processes so they can ultimately better protect their organization and themselves. Symantec, which makes anti-virus and security software, works in countries around the world, where it holds similar challenges, seeking out the best white-hat hackers (those who use their skills to defend against the malicious “black hat” hackers, who are out to steal or vandalize), sometimes hiring them as well, Forzieri said.

The winner of the Israeli contest goes on to compete against other teams in Europe, and later in the US. The top winner has an opportunity to meet with top Symantec executives and security experts at the company’s headquarters California headquarters, all expenses paid.

The winners consisted of a team of three cyber-experts, ages 19, 22, and 26, who work in the security field. The three, said Symantec, have been doing cyber-security since they were kids, and were already consulting for top Israeli firms even before they graduated high school.

The Challenge took place this week, during Cyber-Week, which featured dozens of events, seminars, and activities related to cyber-security surrounding a major international cyber-security forum sponsored by Tel Aviv University’s Cyber Research Center (ICRC). Among the many international guests was former NSA Director Gen. (ret.) Keith Alexander, a keynote speaker at the TAU forum. He visited the Challenge to get a first-hand look at what the hackers were up to.

While Israelis are not necessarily number one in technical skills — that award goes to Russian hackers — Israelis are probably the best at thinking on their feet and adjusting to changing situations on the fly, a trait essential for success in a wide range of areas, including cyber-security, said Forzieri. “In modern attacks, the human factor — for example, getting someone to click on a link that will install malware — constitutes as much as 85% of a successful attack,” he said.

“If you have the brains to apply the hacking brawn, you’ve got a formidable set of skills,” added Forzieri. “For example, some of these kids were using new tools they had never seen before during the course of the Challenge, but by the end they had mastered them. To be able to figure out these things is impressive enough, but to be able to do it in real time is a different level. I came away pretty impressed.”

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