Netanyahu: Israel is leading West’s cyber-security fight

Hackers are killing the Internet, the prime minister says — and Israel is one of the few players that can save it

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Cybertech 2014 conference (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Cybertech 2014 conference (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

For Israel, cyber-security isn’t just about protecting information systems, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in several speeches Tuesday and Wednesday, during the course of Israel’s first-ever cyber-technology show. Cybertech 2014, the prime minister said, is also a way to build an international coalition of countries that will work together to defend “the great blessings” of Internet connectivity, and enable Israel to further develop its periphery, especially in the south. “Beersheva will not only be the cyber capital of Israel but one of the most important places in the cyber security field in the world,” Netanyahu declared at the opening of the conference Tuesday.

Cybertech 2014 is the brainchild of Amir Rapaport, editor of Israel Defense magazine. According to event chairman Rami Efrati, some 5,500 people from Israel and abroad visited the show to see the latest in Israeli cyber-tech. “There are so many important things going on in cyber-security here, we wanted to gather as much of it in one place and show it off to Israelis, and to the world,” Efrati told The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the conference.

Among the visitors are over 450 heads of industry and cyber-security agencies from around the world, said Efrati. Among the larger delegations was the U.S. delegation, including 50 people from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, and delegations from South Korea, Mexico, NASA. Representatives of the armies of Brazil, Mexico, Italy and the Netherlands, IT companies from Colombia, Ghana, and Nigeria, and a cyber-security team from Canada were also in attendance.

In his speech opening the event, Netanyahu laid out his government’s approach to cyber-security and digital literacy. Among the facets of the policy is creation of a “digital Israel,” which entails laying out fiber optic cables throughout the country and “perhaps one of the ways of reducing social gaps, closing social gaps, canceling the whole idea of the periphery. Ultimately,” said the prime minister, “it’s the fast route of knowledge that can come to every home and give everyone an equal opportunity to partake in this future.”

In addition, Netanyahu said, the government is working “to create the environment that allows our entrepreneurs and allows our technologists, our young men and women, to create the devices, the products, the systems, for this new world.” He added, Israel is “exploding with creativity. We’re like a country that would have about half a billion people in terms of our cyber capabilities.”

Israel’s precarious security situation made the country’s population very security-conscious, while the country’s “extraordinary research institutions and universities, like the Technion, the Weizmann Institute,” and especially Ben Gurion University — which will be the most actively involved in cyber-security, because of its proximity to several of the new cyber-security projects being launched — gave students in Israel the tools they needed to utilize those concepts of security in the cyber world, said Netanyahu. In addition, Israel was unique in that it had a small, tight ecosystem of entrepreneurs, many of whom knew each other from school and the army.

All this, Netanyahu said, prepared Israel to take a leadership role in the world on cyber-security issues. The concept of privacy, the prime minister said, was antiquated – or at least different than it used to be. “The networks are exposed. The fact that we have networks, increasing complexity of networks, interconnectivity on networks means that anything and everything can be exposed. The Internet of everything means that everything can be violated,” said Netanyahu. “The whole idea of intellectual property – that is being fundamentally challenged. The privacy of individuals – fundamentally challenged. The sanctity of our bank accounts – fundamentally challenged. And this goes obviously into public systems: power grids, traffic nets, water systems – you name it. Everything can be violated. Everything can be opened up. Everything can be also sabotaged.”

The opportunities – and the need – for leadership in cyber-security is great, and Israel could supply that leadership. “We have decided to put these resources together in a coherent way and we have structured a National Cyber Bureau,” he said. “We have created a special organization to try to mesh together these elements, obviously to afford cyber defense to our critical systems, to the country; but also to see how we can share with others our experience and our talent.”

In essence, Netanyahu sees Israel as leading a coalition of countries to fight the forces that sought to ruin the “blessing of connectivity” that the Internet has brought. “The top policy makers, state and non-state, have to get together. I wouldn’t try to do this in an inclusive way so it’s the new UN of the Internet; that’s not going to work because some unprincipled elements would be in that room and they would distort this effort. I think you need a coalition of the willing, of the leading states that have prowess in this area and the leading companies, to sit down and discuss. In this I think Israel is unquestionably a leading power, disproportionate to our size for the reasons I mentioned, with great talents and great resources,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu did not mention which countries would be included in that coalition, but in a separate discussion, Dr. Eviatar Matania, director of the National Cyber Bureau, said that Israel, the U.S., Europe, Australia, and other Western countries were fighting the same enemies, whether small groups of hackers or entire nation states. When asked about China, Matania said that all countries were welcome if they were serious about working together on cyber-security. “The enemies here are well-known, they are the enemies all of us in the West are fighting,” said Matania.

In order for international efforts to work, Israel needed to – and was willing – to part with some of its “trade secrets,” sharing them with the “coalition of the willing” to advance cyber-security for all. “This requires a decision, which I have made, to relax or reduce some of the constraints that we have traditionally put on such business. The government usually puts constraints on things that have implications for national security, but we have consciously made the decision to lower these restraints because we’re taking a gamble, if you will, on the growth of these partnerships, entailing some risks.” This risk-taking, he said, is required to get us to be able to control this cyber-security jungle, to cut it down to size.”

Taking those risks would eventually benefit not only the members of this coalition by enhancing cyber-security, and it will benefit Israel as well. “Everything that I’ve just described is driving the growth of hundreds of cyber companies – hundreds of them – in Israel. About half of them didn’t exist three or four years ago, and the number is growing rapidly with major investments taking place.” In a sense, cyber-insecurity was a “growth industry” for Israel, one he wishes did not exist at all, said Netanyahu, but one he fully plans to take advantage of to advance Israel’s economy. The start-ups, as well as the large multi-nationals like IBM, Lockheed-Martin, EMC, and others, saw Israel as the best place to develop cyber-security technologies, Netanyahu said.

And the greatest beneficiary would be the long-ignored Negev, which the prime minister foresees as becoming Israel’s high-tech center. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had tried in vain to interest Israeli industry in developing the south. Ben Gurion “didn’t quite get the job done, but the dream was still there. What we’re doing now is something else. What we’re doing is turning Beersheba and the whole Negev into the cyber region of Israel and I think of the eastern hemisphere.

“We have moved significant units of the Israeli Defense Forces to the south; we’re putting our national cyber command smack in the University of Beersheba,” stressed Netanyahu. “We have a railway line leading from Tel Aviv with a train station that literally you disembark on that point in the campus. So you have our security outfits, our university and an industrial park all within walking distance of 100 yards. That’s called a cyber-hub. It’s a big thing.”

For Israel, taking on this leadership role is not a luxury if it wants to survive in the cyber-jungle, the prime minister said. Cyber-experts were fending off thousands of attacks an hour against government, military, and business systems. To survive these attacks, and to thrive as a nation, “We really don’t have a choice. I mean, we have to be good. To be here, we have to be very good, and in some cases we have to be the best.”

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