The Israeli experience

FOR over a decade, Israel has been at the forefront of innovation in tackling cyber-security challenges. The source of its relative advantage in responding to cyber threats is a unique adaptive cyber ecosystem.

In essence, its government, military, academia and private sector have had their cyber programmes and processes converged, creating a framework that benefits from high-value government-coordinated policy initiatives, concerted research and development projects, and continual upgrading of cyber capabilities. Walls between the private and public sectors have been torn down.

More importantly, cyber-security players in Israel share a strategic perspective in which cyber threats are perceived not as a separate security domain, but as another layer in Israel's continually evolving "hybrid" security environment. After all, cyber threats are embedded in the threats faced by Israel, whether they are proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, low-intensity conflicts or terrorism. Many of these activities cannot be carried out without attempts to breach cyber security.

The realities of Israel's ever changing security environment mean that cyber conflicts occur not only during wartime or crises, but also on a persistent basis, including cyber attacks on computerised systems, physical systems and, most importantly, the actual processes controlling critical information infrastructures. The progressive complexity of these security challenges requires Israeli state and private sector responses that continually adapt to the threats and are fast and creative.

The net result is a national cyber-defensive envelope - a multi- layered cyber-defence strategy leveraging a comprehensive national cyber-defence policy, advanced technology and highly trained personnel.

The primary sword and shield against cyber threats in the military domain are the Israel Defence Forces' (IDF) elite cyber units. The most widely known unit is Intelligence Corps Unit 8200, which deals with signal intelligence and code decryption. In 2013, the IDF consolidated all aspects of its cyber situational awareness and command activities into a new cyber headquarters, linked with the civilian Tehila governmental Internet infrastructure system, the E-Government project and the National Cyber Bureau.

The IDF cyber units pioneered the conceptions and implementation of the "cyber-kinetic" military operations - integrating diverse cyber capabilities into military actions. For example, the IDF uses its cyber units for intelligence gathering, including satellite monitoring. Its cyber units are capable of real-time intervention into enemy weapon systems.

These are evident in the IDF's "Operation Orchard" in 2007 which disabled the Syrian air defence system through advanced cyber attacks, which then enabled air strikes on Syrian clandestine nuclear facilities. More recently, the IDF's capture of the Iranian arms ship Klos-C, carried out in the Red Sea 1,500km from Israeli shores, showed the dynamic interaction between the IDF's cyber units and the navy and air force.

Following the selection, training and acquiring of skills and service experience of cyber-security personnel in the IDF, many of them transfer into the Israeli high-tech industry or create their own cyber start-ups. The IDF hence serves as the primary node in Israel's national innovation system by identifying talent, generating collective learning and creating standards for the civilian high-tech industry. This reduces the barriers between public and private sector cyber security.

In turn, Israeli cyber start-ups have a global impact, diffusing solutions that protect against sophisticated cyber threats. According to the National Cyber Bureau, as of last year, there have been over 200 Israeli start-ups working on cyber-security solutions, resulting in US$3 billion (S$4 billion) in cyber exports, second only to the United States, and constituting 5 per cent of the global market.

In 2013, Israeli start-ups raised US$165 million in investment funding, a figure representing 11 per cent of global capital invested in cyber security. Moreover, 14.5 per cent of all the firms worldwide attracting cyber-related investment are Israeli-owned.

Ultimately, the control tower in Israel's cyber ecosystem is the newly set up National Cyber Security Authority, under the Prime Minister's Office. It brings an interdisciplinary thrust in implementing a comprehensive national cyber-defence policy. Its key objective is to continuously strengthen Israel's national cyber resilience by consolidating strategies and sharing relevant information with all organisations.

Israel's unique, symbiotic and adaptive "cyber ecosystem" provides a template for other nations, including in South-east Asia, in confronting the increasingly complex cyber-security challenges. Strategic cooperation among leading national sectors - the defence establishment, private enterprise, academia and key government agencies - shapes national cyber-security priorities and sparks cyber-security innovation across civil-military domains.

The writer is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2015, with the headline The Israeli experience. Subscribe