Protecting against a virtual virus | Interview with Dr. Isaac Ben-Israel

Protecting against a virtual virus | Interview with Dr. Isaac Ben-Israel

We met with Dr. Ben-Israel to discuss virtual viruses, advancing technologies, society’s reliance on those technologies, and much more. Enjoy!

Dr. Isaac Ben-Israel has helped build Israel as a huge exporter of cybersecurity and he discusses the possibility of a virtual virus that could be as widespread as the COVID-19 virus. While he says this may be unlikely considering the motives and restraints of a virtual virus, Dr. Ben-Israel has worked throughout his career to make technologies more secure. As people depend more and more on advanced technologies, he has put the emphasis on making cybersecurity goods accessible to every individual. In doing this he not only protects people individually, but also helps to maintain the network that our society relies on. Follow along as the chairman of the Israeli Space Agency and the National Council for Research and Development and professor at Tel Aviv University, Dr. Isaac Ben-Israel talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

As long as computers are the dominant technology of our time, this is the anticipation, the need for cyber security will only grow.” – Dr. Isaac Ben-Israel

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Interview with Cybersecurity Expert Dr. Isaac Ben-Israel

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:15.4COVID and cybersecurity

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Academic Influence. I have a wonderful guest coming all the way from Israel, Professor Ben-Israel, who is in-charge of cybersecurity at a really high level, and I’m just so impressed how you’ve made it a really important export for Israel.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you see as the future of cybersecurity threats? We’ve all seen how viruses such as COVID can cover the entire world and shut down the entire economy, is there the possibility of a virtual virus, a computer virus doing the same thing for the entire world?

Isaac Ben-Israel: Of course, and it’s not going to stop in the coming years. You’ll make an effort to find the vaccination or, some medical answer to this and you get rid of it, it will never happen because the rate of change is so fast that it’s like, if I’m using your COVID-19 example, it’s like a new version, like the Delta one, let’s say, these new ones coming every week or something like this, it’s one generation in computer science is something like between one to one and a half years. This is a fact, for the last 60 years, okay? One generation, that means that if someone will come with a new idea, let’s say tomorrow morning or months from now, we will see it or will be filtered, we will see it in our computers, I’m speaking about new idea in cyber attack or defense, you will see it working in the field within a few months or one year. And that’s why we need to run very fast in order to stay in the same place. The way I defined it, cybersecurity is really the dark side of computer technology.

And therefore, the more computer version[s] will be developed, the more dependent we'll be on this, the more vulnerable we will be, and therefore the more cybersecurity we need.” – Dr. Isaac Ben-Israel

We develop computer technology very fast, and by doing it, we apply it more widely and we become more dependent on proper function of computers and the bad guys and there are always bad guys starting by states and then organizations and crime, criminals, etcetera. The bad guys will use this dependence in order to... Not for the benefit of society, this was the reason why we developed computer technology, but for their own interest or their own selfish interest in a way. And therefore, the more computer version will be developed, the more dependent we’ll be on this, the more vulnerable we will be, and therefore the more cybersecurity we need.

Jed: Wow, and people like Bill Gates spoke to the world about, you know the possibility of a worldwide epidemic, pandemic, and he was right, but we don’t hear somebody in the same high profile talking about there’s going to be a giant computer virus that shuts down the whole world. And so far there hasn’t been, but is it just around the corner, was it just luck that we got COVID before we got the computer equivalent of COVID.

Could they have happened in an opposite order, or is there something about how we’re not quite ready as a world for a worldwide computer epidemic because our computers are not quite pervasive enough, or they’re not quite similar enough, each computer isn’t different enough. Why haven’t we seen a worldwide computer pandemic, is it just by luck or is it because of something inherent in the technology?

Isaac: It’s something inherent, and I’ll tell you why.

Jed: Okay.

Isaac: Unlike COVID-19, COVID-19 is a natural play of nature. Some mutation and then the new virus and we have to solve this problem. Cyber viruses are man made, these are not happening by blind evolution, it’s man made. And people are not interested at all in the virus that will paralyse the whole world. No one is building this capability, because everyone has his own goal in life, okay. One, would like to earn money instead of robbing a bank with a mask and a gun that it used to be dozens of years ago, it’s easier today to break the code of the... Your code, let’s say, your personal account, phishing for your password or something like this, and then order the bank to transfer money from one account to another account, you don’t need... A virus that will be invented by human beings to do this will not affect the computers controlling the... I don’t know, power production or water supply something like that.

Instead of, by human beings to reach certain goals. And that’s why you don’t see something worldwide like the COVID-19. And there’s no interest on the contrary. I mean people who develop those viruses many times are afraid, that if they will lose control of it, it will hit them back and therefore they are immuning themselves or whatever it is on their side, before they start applying it blindly. It’s the other way round, there is a reason for this.

Jed: Alright, that seems fair, I mean, even if you were to believe that the Wuhan lab was trying to enhance the function of these coronaviruses and one escaped and now infected the world. So it was in some ways, a bit man made, in its enhanced function. It was starting with a virus that is designed to infect anything, really. It doesn’t have any man-made constraints, the virus just wants to infect everything it can, and so you start on the back, if you design something on the back of that, you’re starting with a vehicle that likes to go everywhere, whereas a computer virus, from the very beginning, only wants to go in certain places. So I can see your point.

But what if there was some kind of crazy person who is also very smart? Couldn’t they just... Because they wanted to destroy the world, create a virus that would do that? Or are we not at that point?

Isaac: It would be foolish to say that such a possibility is not possible. Almost everything which is reasonable enough is possible. I don’t know if there will be someone like this, but this can be done by the way, with other technologies. Like, some crazy guy who can put his hands on nuclear weapons, will bypass all the obstacles we put on activating those weapons and start a world war, nuclear war. It can happen. We have to prepare ourself to make it very difficult for these guys to do what they want.

0:08:19.8Protecting us

Jed: So, are you most proud, in all of your long career, that you’ve helped the world be ready, to protect the whole world against cyber attacks? Is that the thing that you’re...

Isaac: Yeah, I think, I think...

Jed: I talked to your friend Zvi Galil , and the thing he’s most proud about is, creating an environment where people can get a degree very inexpensively, and how successful that has been.

Is your most proud achievement helping the world become more cyber-secure?

Isaac: I think yes. Putting the emphasis on cybersecurity, defending everyone, not only intelligence, military, defense organisations and services. This was done long ago before I did it, starting by the beginning of the ’80s. But, making it as a kind of good that everyone can buy, produce, purchase for protecting, securing, his own individual computer, business computer and something like this. The way I see it, as long as computers are the dominant technology of our time, this is the anticipation, the need for cyber security will only grow.

Jed: That’s true. Well, I think back on the Bible, and it’s talking about everyone living under his own fig tree peacefully, and this is a theme that our first president, President George Washington also picked up on, wanting to create a country where people could be at peace under their own fig tree. It seems like you are doing that for people with their computers, that they can live peacefully with their computer and not worry about somebody doing ransomware and making them pay money, just to get their own photos back, off of their own computers. So, I think it’s really good.

Isaac: It’s not only for protecting you personally, but our whole society, how can we live without these online connections today? It will destroy some basic principles. Look for example, what COVID-19 did, when we started to speak about shutdown and social distancing and things like this. It can change the whole rules of the games that we developed for hundreds or thousands of years.

0:11:00.3Sign off

Jed: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for all of your work, professor Ben-Israel. Because without what you’ve done and what people like you have done, we would all be in bad shape. And thank you for coming on our interview today. It’s been wonderful to talk to you.

Isaac: Thank you.

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