How Israel is planning for hybrid wars of the future with cyber dome

THE WEEK visited the 1,800-acre complex in Negev desert

41-A-cyber-facility-in-Israel The future is here: A cyber facility in Israel | Oded Karni

The first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, predicted that the future of Israel lay in Negev, a vast expanse of undulating desert 90 minutes drive from the bustling Tel Aviv. I went there to see this future in July, but all I saw were camels and cattle roaming the countryside. Vegetation was scarce. Seeds of a different kind were being sown in a 1,800-acre complex in Negev’s capital Beer Sheva.

Nearly 14,000 men and women in the Beer Sheva complex fight enemies from Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and other state and non-state actors from China and Russia.

As men behind computer monitors are replacing men in foxholes in modern warfare, Israel has gone all in on cyber, be it for defence or for attack. It has pooled its best brains to design a ‘Cyber Dome’, on the lines of the country’s famous Iron Dome.

The Cyber Dome is big data; it is AI; it is a medley of futuristic digital technology; and it is being composed by an ‘orchestra’ in the desert.

Though the Cyber Dome will fight virtual wars, unlike the Iron Dome, the composition of their soldiers is not dissimilar. These are men and women drawn from the defence intelligence Unit 8200; J6 and Cyber Defence Directorate within the Israel Defence Forces (IDF); cyber units of the spy agency Mossad and domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet; and the ministry of defence.

“We call it the secret sauce,” said Gaby Portnoy, director general, Israel National Cyber Directorate. “While the orchestra (combined efforts of various departments) works outside, INCD does the internal work. We all work closely together. All the alerts we receive from the orchestra are used to improve our skills. We sit and talk together often.”

Portnoy and friends are working with many partners to build and expand the Cyber Dome as part of a national and multinational strategy. This is especially important because of the ongoing war with Hamas; both sides have reportedly launched cyberattacks to create confusion and alarm.

“There has been a rapid cross-pollination between the military, academia, government and private industry in cyberspace in the past couple of years,” said Erez Tidhar, executive director, INCD. And all these players, be it the IDF or the private industry, are active in the desert.

The uniting theme, perhaps, is the military’s stamp on Israel’s cyber industry. Israelis enrol for compulsory military training at age 18 (three years for boys and two for girls), but those as young as 15 are allowed to join elite cyber forces like Unit 8200.

“So, every three years, a new generation comes into cyber defence once they complete military training,” said Tidhar. “And, officers retiring from the defence forces join the private cyber industry.” In about half a decade, this cycle has given rise to a cyber ecosystem that has some of the best personnel and technology in the world.

New-age battles: A Cert-Il cyber war room. New-age battles: A Cert-Il cyber war room.

A common refrain is that the military-trained Israeli never retires. This has been a boon for the cyber industry. More than 33 per cent of the world’s cyber unicorns are Israeli. More than 40 per cent of the private global investment in cyber funding is in Israel.

The “secret” of Portnoy’s secret sauce is the generative artificial intelligence platforms the IDF has quietly created. The IDF was one of the first in the world to use AI to thwart threats. Intelligence services use generative AI platforms, similar to ChatGPT, to filter important threats from the unlimited amount of intelligence flowing into their systems. The IDF uses these platforms to create its own protection wall and to bolster attack capabilities during war.

The Beer Sheva complex runs these AI-supported military programmes. Nearly 14,000 men and women in military fatigues fight enemies from Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and other state and non-state actors from China and Russia. “Anyone who carries out cyberattacks against Israeli citizens must take into account the price he will pay,” said Portnoy.

Ronen Bar, director of Shin Bet, said AI technology had been incorporated quite naturally into his spy agency’s interdiction machines (which assess threats). “Already, with AI, we have identified a significant number of threats,” he said. The moment such threats enter Israeli cyberspace, smaller war rooms of INCD’s Computer Emergency Response Team of Israel (CERT-IL) detect and kill them. CERT-IL has several war rooms in Beer Sheva. Interestingly, the space between man and machine is equally divided in these war rooms. One half is occupied by tattooed, nerdy youth who physically monitor real-time graphic data flowing in from each corner of the country on multiple screens. The other half is completely digital, running on AI and machine learning. It gathers, reads and interprets data to detect anomalies and alert the national systems.

Unlike most countries, Israel is not embarrassed to admit to or share details of a cyberattack. “We want to be attacked. Send us the trojans and malware. It helps us prepare better,” said a cyber war room expert. “Not only will we prepare ourselves, we will tell the rest of the world how to do it.”

Israel has built assets for its own use and for the needs of other nations, too. “What Israel did differently was to become the first country to come out of the closet and make cyber technology a legitimate tool of everyday life,” said Isaac Ben-Israel, the father of the cybersecurity ecosystem in the country.

Israel’s quest to defeat cyber weapons is at least a decade old; in 2010, the world’s first-known cyber weapon, Stuxnet, disabled a key part of the Iranian nuclear programme. “The idea is to turn a disadvantage into an advantage, and the Israelis have learnt it over the years,” said Ran Natanzon, head of innovation at the ministry of foreign affairs. “To begin with, the country had to cope with small desert land and water scarcity. We used our expertise in innovation and technology to turn these disadvantages into an advantage.”

Israelis adopted a similar approach in the cyber sphere as the first respondents to cyberattacks, developed a robust cyber security industry and then put it to dual technology use for military and civilian life. “Ingenuity and innovation are at the heart of Israel’s cyber industry,” he said.

Every April 7, since 2013, anonymous groups around the world launch massive attacks on Israeli websites. They call it Hack Israel Day. “These attacks are not fully coordinated as they can be launched from any part of the world. They also occur anytime in any part of the country,” said Natanzon.

But the Israelis have turned it into a learning experience. As the attacks are launched from different time zones, the cyber warriors come prepared; it is a day to order pizzas, settle in with a cup of coffee and go home late. The outcome―knowledge-sharing, patching up vulnerabilities and finding global solutions.

Yigal Gueta, who cofounded the Israeli National Security Authority, which later became INCD, said attackers were constantly innovating to target operational technology (OT) domains that control entities like power generation, oil and gas, water supply, medical health and data centres.

“Obtaining control of operational technology systems enables a potential attacker to create huge damage in the physical world with little effort,” he said. Gueta is the founder and CEO of ScadaSudo Ltd, a cybersecurity firm that protects critical infrastructure, defence companies and hospitals in Israel.

“Israeli companies are unique,” said Avner Isaac, a cyber expert at ScadaSudo, who has more than 40 years of military experience. “They are targeted for cyberattacks on a daily basis. This confrontation forces us to be very professional and innovative in our solutions.”

The next challenge? Rein in AI. And these research labs are at it. They have found several vulnerabilities in algorithms in latest AI technologies. Deepfake technology, for instance, can mimic legitimate traffic behaviour and crash autopilot cars. Such scenarios can be mind-boggling. “Today, there is an AI component in every aspect of life,” said Ben-Israel. Be it driverless cars or smart homes. “Very soon, AI will control our lives,” he said. “Before that, we need to control it.”