Israel is no slouch at cyberwarfare. The Jewish state has been under incessant attack from its inception and has had to grapple with myriad enemies.
Throughout the years, the challenges have changed. If during the first decades of the state the challenges were conventional, this has gradually changed. When our enemies realized they could not defeat us on the battlefield, they switched tactics to terrorism. And when terrorism did not work they started to employ the more technology-based methods known as cyberwarfare.
In the fight to survive, Israel has been forced to adapt and evolve.
Israeli society is built around the need to remain ahead of its enemies, and human resources are Israel’s most powerful weapon. Universal conscription means nearly every high school student is evaluated by the IDF. Those with the most outstanding intellectual, psychological and physical traits are hand-picked and trained. The IDF is a breeding ground for cultivating the abilities of the best and brightest to help Israel to stay one or more steps ahead of its enemies. This is the open secret of Israel’s phenomenal success in the field of hi-tech in general and in cyberwarfare in particular.
But last week former Mossad director Tamir Pardo dropped a bombshell. He warned that the Jewish state is not adequately prepared for the constantly changing challenges presented by cyberwarfare.
During a smart cities conference in Tel Aviv, Pardo acknowledged that Israel was making efforts to keep up with the developments in cyberwarfare. But he said Israel’s readiness remains “woefully inadequate,” reported Max Schindler, The Jerusalem Post’s business correspondent.
Pardo likened the destructive power of cyberwarfare to the nuclear bomb. Both can damage whole societies, destroy states and win a war without firing any bullets.
We would add that cyberwarfare is in many ways even more pernicious. Unlike a nuclear bomb, a cyberattack can be carried out without the victim knowing who is attacking. Very aggressive actions can be taken while the attacker, at least initially, retains deniability.
Internet access, cellular phone networks – even electrical grids – can be disabled for long periods, rendering a modern society unable to function.
Stuxnet, a malicious computer worm, provides a good example of the capabilities of cyberwarfare. The worm attacked programmable logic controllers, which automate machinery, factory assembly lines – and centrifuges used to make nuclear bombs.
According to foreign reports, Israel, working with the US, used Stuxnet in 2010 to compromise Iran’s nuclear weapons production by causing fast-spinning centrifuges to spin so fast they tore themselves apart. It is estimated that one-fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges were destroyed in this way.
Russia’s cyberattack on the American electoral system before the 2016 elections included invasion of voter databases and software systems in 39 US states.
And just last week both the US and the UK accused Russia’s military of being responsible for the “NotPetya” cyberattack last year that crippled parts of Ukraine’s infrastructure and damaged computers in countries across the globe.
Pardo predicted that if Israel, a country constantly under various forms of cyberattacks, were to have its defenses penetrated, pandemonium would break out. Ministries would point fingers at each other and the people would take to the streets.
Pardo said it is not beyond the realm of possibility for a cyberattack to cripple the Israeli economy.
Some of the steps that Israel has made to stay ahead of the game include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s creation in 2010 of the National Cyber Initiative task force, which, under the leadership of Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, has created an “ecosystem” or constantly evolving framework for collaboration by the government, the IDF, businesses and universities.
Israel should also continue to cultivate IDF units such as Military Intelligence’s 8200, which is a veritable incubator and accelerator of Israel’s start-ups, particularly in the field of cybersecurity.
Since its inception, the State of Israel has learned to transform the disadvantage of being widely hated and attacked into an advantage. The battleground – whether real or virtual – is an ideal real-life testing ground for innovation.
There is, of course, the added incentive that failure could mean destruction.