Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a bold initiative this week calling on tech giants and western powers to band together to protect the world from cyberattacks, vowing to relax export restrictions normally placed on security-related technologies so that Israeli cyberdefence companies can sell their expertise around the globe. Making this vision a reality, however, will be complicated.
Industry experts say that tech companies and intelligence agencies would likely be loath to trade secrets and reveal their own vulnerabilities. Israel also risks compromising its own national security by allowing cybercompanies, mostly formed by graduates of stealth Israeli security units, to export advanced technologies that enemies could use against Israel.
“We are taking a gamble,” Mr. Netanyahu acknowledged at a cybertechnology conference on Monday. “Entailing some risks, but willing to do so to get much bigger gain.”
Israel established a national cyberbureau two years ago to coordinate defence against attacks on the country’s infrastructures and networks, such as a virus that recently shut down a major Israeli roadway two days in a row.
The bureau also seeks to boost Israel’s economy by building up its cyber-defence industry. In the last few years, the number of Israeli cyberdefence companies has ballooned from a few dozen to more than 200, accounting for five to 10 per cent of the global cyber-security industry, said Eviatar Matania, head of Israel’s national cyber bureau.
Dr. Matania estimated the global industry to be worth $60 to $80 billion a year. Check Point Software Technologies, one of the world’s leading cybersecurity firms, was founded in Israel.
“By developing more and more human capital in the area ... we will be able to be a global cyberincubator,” Dr. Matania said.
This week, international giants IBM and Lockheed Martin announced new cyberresearch projects in Israel, and Deutsche Telekom and EMC have also established research centres in the country. Hundreds of cybersecurity companies and experts, including directors of cybersecurity in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, attended this week’s expo of Israeli security companies and start-ups in Tel Aviv.
Seeking to learn from that Israeli prowess, Symantec, a leading computer security company, hosted a “hackathon” at the expo, inviting Israeli hackers including some teenagers who ditched high school for the day to try to pierce through its systems. Ewa Lis of Symantec said the company has hosted similar hacking challenges throughout Europe.
Israel has established itself as a world leader in cybertechnology innovation, fuelled by graduates of prestigious and secretive military and security intelligence units. These units are widely thought to be behind some of the world’s most advanced cyberattacks, including the Stuxnet virus, which attacked Iran’s nuclear energy equipment.
Each year, these units churn out a talent pool of young Israelis who translate their experience executing or protecting against advanced cyberattacks to the corporate world. But regulation of the industry to bar Israeli secrets and know-how from leaving the country like limits that Israel puts on weapons exports has been almost non-existent. The same is true in other countries. Only last month did western signatories to the Wassenaar Arrangement, an international treaty that regulates arms sales, move to place restrictions on the cybertechnology trade. Israel is not a signatory to the Wassenaar Arrangement, but the country says its weapons trade policies follow the spirit of the agreement.
Israel’s national cyberbureau said it is currently formulating rules on what cybertechnologies cannot be exported. Rami Efrati of the bureau said those regulations would be completed within six months.
“I don’t think cyber is a secret,” said Mr. Efrati, who is heading the bureau’s effort to boost the Israeli cyberdefence industry. “On the other hand we have to be very sensitive about this question, in order to make sure we will have an advantage in such technology.”
In 2011, Bloomberg News reported that Internet traffic monitoring software made by Israeli company Allot Communications Ltd. and shipped to Denmark ended up in Iran, Israel’s arch-foe. The company denied the charge, and Israel’s Defence Ministry later cleared it of any wrongdoing.
Alon Hazay, a former cyberdefence expert in Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, who now serves as a private consultant, said he was aware of at least two Israeli startups formed by graduates of Israeli security units whose software contains sophisticated defences that provide tell-tale clues of the kinds of sophisticated attacks Israel uses against its foes. He said the companies are working for international clients, with one developing mobile phone security solutions and the other providing security for computers.
But in the field of cyberspace, Mr. Hazay said, it is difficult to ascertain what technology constitutes an Israeli national security asset. He said it was inevitable that such technologies would make their way to the marketplace.
“The guys coming out of the army are going to make money. The only thing they know how to do is security,” said Mr. Hazay. “You can’t prevent them from using their minds.”