The Fifth Fighting Space

What is Israel’s current position in cyberwarfare and where is Israel headed? Ram Levi, former secretary of the National Cybernetic Taskforce, outlines the National Cyber Directorate (NCD) approved by the Israeli Cabinet

The collapse of crucial national infrastructures, the shutdown of vital services and websites, and the possibility of satellite attacks by a hostile state are not apocalyptic scenarios in a science fiction film; instead, these are possible cyber-terror attacks that could cripple the economy, security systems, and daily life.

Cyberspace has become vital to commercial companies around the globe due to basic changes in human communication. The Internet, for example, is an essential part of the infrastructure in knowledge-based countries—no less important than water and electric infrastructures. The growth of commercial companies is structurally linked to Internet development.

Technically, cyberspace refers to the world of computers, computerized systems, information programs, and the community of users. However, it is much more than a PC screen—cyberspace is a virtual reality.

The Growing Threat

Cyber dangers are real and demand attention. Technologically advanced states, like Israel, employ computers in every field. This grants them an advantage over less developed states, but also creates dependency that could prove to be an Achilles heel. Cyberterror and computerized attacks on national infrastructure cause serious damage with increasing frequency. This trend is expected to continue as cyberspace activity increases. Cyberattacks include the collapse of electrical systems, penetration of databases, the shutdown of vital services, infection of personal computers, alterations in the content of public sites, and the disruption of military operations, satellites, and national infrastructures.

Since it is impossible to have proof of the perpetrator’s identity, as a source of the attack is often unknown, it is difficult to bring them to justice. Hackers, criminal syndicates, terrorist organizations, guerilla groups, and even sovereign states remain undeterred as cyberterrorism continues to wreak havoc.

Governments and professional groups estimate damages from cyberattacks cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In a recently published report, Norton calculated that cybercrime around the globe costs as much as $114 billion USD, in addition to $274 billion USD for lost work time.

The Fifth Combat Space

Parallel to these trends, countries are changing their perception of cyberspace to a new combat dimension. In the cyber-context, the dividing line that once separated traditional military combat from criminal or business damage is being worn away. Israel, like other Western states, is re-evaluating the implications of these changes.

The increased dependency on cyberspace requires protecting computer systems that are vital to daily life. Many areas in the public and private sectors are vulnerable to a cyberattack: hospitals, national databases, electric and water grids, telephone networks, Internet servers, banks, government offices, businesses, national security and cyberspace systems, and even PCs and cellphones. All of these areas need protection; Israel must bolster its cyber defenses by securing its cyber infrastructure.

The Cybernetic Taskforce

The National Cybernetic Taskforce was established in order to guarantee Israel’s global leadership in cyberspace and provide the best possible defense for the country’s cyber infrastructure. Headed by the Chairman of the National Council for Research and Development, Professor Major General (Ret.) Isaac Ben-Israel, the eighty-member taskforce dedicates its time to nurturing its principles. It maintains that Israel’s position as a global leader in the development of information technology must be secured, and that the country must be provided with state-of-the-art cyber capabilities to protect its economy and preserve its open, democratic, knowledge-based society.

Civilian Security

The taskforce’s three main issues are to promote cyberspace in Israel, develop the knowledge infrastructure for dealing with Israel’s needs, and introduce policy changes to meet the challenges facing the country. Cyberattacks are a potential threat to the state. The Shabak’s State Authority for Securing Information already protects defense infrastructures and vital systems. Nevertheless, the taskforce identified a huge gap in the defense of civilians: the absence of a national headquarters or directorate for determining cyberspace policy. An effective answer to targeted attacks in the civilian sector must be found, as the public must be made aware of the magnitude of the threat it faces.

Given Israel’s potential as a major world player in cyber defense, the team concluded that national synergy mechanisms need to be forged among various sectors. The government’s 2002 decision (84/B) provided an answer for the protection of essential computerized systems, but was found to be inapplicable to threats today, especially as it lacked a comprehensive solution. After determining vital computerized systems in the security and civilian sectors, decision 84/B allocated responsibility for protecting them. Still, the systems requiring security were only briefly defined and most of their cyber protection systems remain classified.

This is not the case with the rest of the areas that were defined as vital in 2002: hospitals, clinics, local councils, and gas plants. These computer systems are considered sub-critical: separately, none of them are essential; together, their collective breakdown would be a serious blow to infrastructure. Therefore, the current model in which the computer networks of vital systems are protected regardless of their connection to other systems, needs re-examination.

Regarding infrastructures, the National Cybernetic Taskforce found that Israel lacks critical knowledge in High-Performance Computing (HPC), especially in applied HPC. Pockets of HPC exist, but there is no cooperation between them, and they are spread out in a way that precludes such cooperation. In recent years, a number of world-class computing companies emerged in Israel. According to TOP500 (a project that grades the world’s most powerful computer systems), four out of seven of the fastest computers in the world were built with Israeli hardware and software. Unfortunately, wherever HPC computers are found in Israel, a knowledge gap exists between the computer and its environment, even though this gap can be overcome with appropriate resources and professional knowledge. Many consumers are simply unaware of the untapped capabilities of HPC in a supportive environment. The taskforce committee found that a precondition for advancing HPC in Israel is the establishment of an academic research center that functions as a national knowledge center for super-computing.

Concerning academics, the taskforce stated that cyberspace research needed to be strengthened beyond both the knowledge center and research in super-computing. Findings indicate the need for greater research cooperation between academia, the defense establishment, and the industry. In addition, a clear investment needs to be made in education, so that instructors can train the next generation of scientists and engineers. Lastly, research grants must be increased.

In the economic sphere, the taskforce team found that a strong industrial base is crucial for pioneering solutions and safeguarding Israel’s cyber capabilities. Though Israel is currently involved in a wide-range of business activities, industries related to national cyber defense still need development. The taskforce saw the need to increase cyberspace industry in the civilian sector by promoting major government projects.

In the sphere of politics and legislature, due to the global nature of challenges and threats, international cooperation must also become a top priority in Israel’s cyberspace policy. The taskforce cited four major relevant areas of cooperation: R&D policy, R&D projects, legislature, and regulations.

The team mentioned the need for greater transparency in regulatory processes linked to technological imports, and the need to centralize commercial information and make it available to Israeli and foreign investors.

The committee submitted a paper to the prime minister containing twelve recommendations for his consideration. These included establishing a national cyber directorate, enlarging the authority for information security into an operative body dealing with national infrastructures and the civilian sector, formulating policies and regulations that advance the cyber industry, and setting up an excellence center to promote R&D.

The taskforce noted the need to increase investment in school programs and higher education and to make a joint effort to raise the public’s cyberspace awareness and its inherent dangers.

Investing in Education

The taskforce’s recommendations received official recognition in a meeting with the Prime Minister Netanyahu in May 2011, and in August 2011, were approved by the government. In order to strengthen Israel’s cyber capabilities, the ministers voted to establish a National Cyber Directorate (NCD) subordinate to the PM’s Office.

The NCD will define cyber threats and coordinate operations with other cybersecurity bodies. The directorate received a mandate to promote industry and cyber R&D in Israel and update the laws to parallel cyber developments.

Following the committee’s recommendations, Netanyahu decided to invest in R&D for Israel to attain the position of a world knowledge center in the field of cyberspace. This will be achieved by establishing academic excellence centers, stemming the brain drain, returning cyber-scientists and engineers to Israel, boosting research budgets, increasing enrollment in cyberscience, and strengthening cyber instruction.

The government approved the taskforce’s recommendations for deregulation and the encouragement of investment in Israeli cyber industries. In addition, it decided to raise public awareness of cyberspace by increasing the number of scientific and technological programs in the education system.

The paper was a joint effort of experienced professionals, researchers, and institutions in technology, R&D administration, political and strategic analysis, national security, and law. The integration of all these fields resulted in a comprehensive and balanced set of recommendations. The goals were to maintain Israel’s status as an information technologies leader, and to provide cyber-capabilities that would guarantee its economic growth and strength as an open, democratic, knowledge-based society.

An interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary approach to cyberspace is needed due to the unique nature of the existing and anticipated challenges. A long-range perspective for Israel’s efforts in the digital age to gain priority as a national goal. The only way the vision of Israel’s cyber leadership will be realized, is through a national program. The state will have to invest in its digital future to meet the challenge of future cyber threats. This will require systematic handling, regulatory and legislative changes, increased budgets, and coordination and cooperation between businesses, academia, and the defense establishment. 

The author, Ram Levi, is a research fellow at the Yuval Ne’eman Science, Technology & Security Workshop, Tel Aviv University. R [email protected]


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