Israel Accelerates Cybersecurity Know-How As Early As 10th Grade


cyber-attackAmid a rapid rise in cyber attacks on Israel, the state is accelerating efforts to recruit and develop the cyber expertise it needs to keep pace with emerging threats in the Middle East and beyond.

With double the number of scientists and engineers per capita compared to the US and 10 times more active-duty soldiers relative to its total population, Israel already has impressive human capital in scientific fields such as cybersecurity. But now it is also tapping everything from high school classrooms to venture capital firms to extract cream-of-the-crop cyber experts, hone their skills and ideas, and fund their development.

Israel’s model, though tailor-made for its unique size and capabilities, offers potential lessons for other countries looking to improve their cybersecurity game, including the United States, according to US cybersecurity experts familiar with Israel’s approach.

The US has numerous programs in place to attract and train the best cyber talent, and President Obama recently proposed expanding the cybersecurity budget by nearly $1 billion after an annual US intelligence survey ranked the threat of cyberattacks on banks, power grids, and other infrastructure as higher than terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.

But quality can matter more than quantity in this emerging battlefield, where a team of pony-tailed hackers fueled by pizza, Coke, and plum salaries may be enough to design major attacks or help bolster US defenses against them.

Some American experts say Israel may be zeroed in to an even greater degree than the US on developing cyber Top Guns with the ability to write and modify computer code, spot software vulnerabilities, move clandestinely inside networks, and manipulate systems, rather than just develop cybersecurity policy.

“What Israel has done is focus much more heavily on technical skills and leave the political work to the politicians,” says Alan Paller of the SANS Institute, who examined Israeli cybersecurity strategy as part of the US Department of Homeland Security’s Task Force on CyberSkills last summer. “Their skill level [per capita] … outdoes everyone, even China,” he adds, despite China’s “massive program” for developing skilled cyber experts.

Professor Isaac Ben Israel, a driving force behind the creation of Israel’s new National Cyber Bureau last year, says Israel has “the pleasure, the benefit, of selecting the right people for the right positions,” thanks in large part to mandatory military service, which pools the country’s talent and makes for efficient recruiting.

Such expertise helped Israel achieve a top-3 ranking in preparedness for cyberattacks in a 2012 report (PDF) by security technology company McAfee, along with Finland and Sweden and ahead of the US, China, and Russia. In addition, Israel’s critical infrastructure has been required by law to protect itself against cyberattacks since 2002, a decade before US Congress tried and failed to pass similar legislation. Israel has also implemented a host of new strategies in the past few years, including more math and science emphasis in schools, cybersecurity competitions, and major conferences such as Prof. Ben Israel’s 3rd Annual International Cyber Security Conference that opens June 12 at Tel Aviv University with an all-star lineup of speakers, from Russia’s Eugene Kaspersky to former White House official Richard A. Clarke.

Even so, Israeli experts remain concerned about enemies like Iran, which has the capacity to work on long-term attacks that require significant manpower, robust funding, and intelligence agents necessary to determine the location and type of computers used at, say, a power production company.

“In relative terms, we are in good shape,” says Ben Israel, a former major general in the air force and one of Israel’s most prominent cybersecurity experts. “In absolute terms, we are not in the required shape. Unfortunately we have more threats than Finland, Sweden, or even the United States.”


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