We met with Dr. Isaac Ben-Israel to discuss advancing technology, Israel’s role in the field of cybersecurity, and much more. Enjoy!
Unlike our neighbors, Israel was very much controlled by computers.” – Dr. Isaac Ben-Israel
Dr. Isaac Ben-Israel discusses his unusual introduction to space technology that has now allowed him to serve as the chairman of the Israeli Space Agency. He also has been extremely influential in Israel’s new industry of cybersecurity. Dr. Ben-Israel became aware of the increasing dangers in controlling technology, quickly growing his operative cyber unit into a cybersecurity program. He is now a professor and because of his proposal to the prime minister every university in Israel has a program in cybersecurity. This has resulted in a dramatic increase of export and global investment of cybersecurity products in Israel. The growth of cybersecurity in the past 20 years in Israel is more than even Dr. Ben-Israel could have imagined.
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from Academic Influence, and I’m here with Professor Ben-Israel, and he is the chairman of the Israeli Space Agency. And so we just wanna know, first off, how did you start getting involved in the military, and how did you know that you wanted to go into your field when you were, say, my age?
Isaac Ben-Israel: Well, to tell you the truth, my first experience in space technology was when I was 12 years old.
Isaac: At the beginning of the ’60s, I was living in an air force base because my father served in the Air Force, so we were living at the base. And then Israel launched its first time ever rocket, which was called Shavit and later on was used for launching satellites. But this was the first time, the beginning of the ’60s, in which Israel launched a Space Launcher, I would say, and I was... As a 12-years-old boy, I was very much impressed by this, and I decided I should build my own rocket. And living at an air force base you have some opportunities that you cannot find in a city, including going to this base, the main maintenance unit of the air force stage, so I could go there and ask the technicians to build for me... I took a pipe, I took... Don’t tell anyone. I took bullets and took the gunpowder off of the bullets, something that is not recommended to be repeated. At the end of the day, by the way, it exploded, and I still have some scars on my body for this.
Isaac: But originally I built it. I ignited the gunpowder with a match, and it flew to space. What do I mean by space? Something like five metres, six metres high. [laughter] For me, it was burning to the outer space until one day I launched it and it fell on a jeep on the road, in which the outgoing parachuters. The commander of the parachuters brigade in this place and the new one were driving, and it almost hit them. I mean, it hit the windows of the jeep, so the outgoing commander took me by my ears to my father, and my father said, "Leave the boy, he is screaming. Don’t you see that he’s screaming?" Cause I was crying. And he said to me, "You should thank God... " He said to my father, "He should thank God he is the first man ever who would launch a rocket against me and stayed alive."
And this parachuter was colonel at the time, Ariel Sharon, who later on became the Prime Minister, well he became the Defense Minister then before the Prime Minister, I was already Major General, and we talked a lot about this experience.
Karina: Wow, that is so funny. And now you are a pioneer in this new industry of selling cybersecurity. So can you kind of walk us through how you went from being this 12-year-old boy making rockets to working in the industry of cybersecurity?
Isaac: If you want, it started in Israel like any other country in the world, I think, a developed country, started developing what nowadays we call cyber technology for the sake of getting intelligence. Since the beginning of the ’80s, 40 years now, people started to store information in computerised media, and therefore intelligence services had to find a way to hack into these computers to carry on the mission.
But the first time that someone thought, in Israel, I’m speaking now on Israel, that it can be expanded, the technology, and also applied as a kind of weapon against military platform at the beginning in Israel, the idea came to me at the beginning of ’92. The beginning of ’92, I was the then already a brigadier general in charge of the R&D; the R&D, a unit of the IDF, Israeli Defense Forces. And your task in life is to find technologies that will be used in the future battles.
And then came the internet. In ’92, the Internet came, and I remember that 22 years ago, I read a book by Alvin Toffler , Future Shock, which says that one day we will have all these technologies, the computer technologies, speaking about the Internet without calling it Internet. And I read it again, I read it first when I was a student for Mathematics and Physics in 1970. I read it again, and I decided that he is right. It’s not science fiction. We have the proof here. The Internet was the proof. We should prepare ourselves to use cyber technology as a kind of weapon in future battlefields.
So I went to the Chief of Staff of the IDF, and he gave me some 75 people and a lot of money and we founded the first... Nowadays, we will call it operative cyber unit, something like this, not doing defense, not cyber defense, not cyber security, and not doing intelligence operations, but offensive cyber unit. This was in ’90s.
After a few years of then getting the experience with this new technology, we came to the conclusion that it is very difficult to use it as a weapon in the battlefield against military platforms. The idea was simple but very difficult to implement. We thought that, let’s say I would like to defend Israel against air attack. How one defends himself against air attack? We can use something kinetic to shoot down the aircraft of the other side. This was an old method.
Since the ’70s, beginning of the ’70s, another method was ended, and this is electronic warfare. That is, not shooting something kinetic at the platform, the aircraft of the other side, but jamming its electronic systems. And then the idea, at the beginning of the ’90s, as I told you was that now the... At the beginning of the ’90s that there are computers on both fighter aircrafts. You can send what we call the variables. You can do something to the computer of the aircraft and then defend yourself in this way.
It sounds reasonable, it is very difficult to do and we learn that it is much easier to use the same technology in order to cause damage to set what we call the critical infrastructure. By critical infrastructure, I mean power production, water supply, transportation, health care system, etcetera. All these systems are controlled by computers. Now, you use the same technology of hacking into the computer, but not in order to do something to the information stored in these computers. This was done before, but in order to cause some damage to the systems that were controlled by the computers and these are usually civilian. I would say the infrastructure, usually it’s private, business sectors, civilian entities, but in case of war, if we could shut off the electricity of some country around us that attacks us, it has it’s value. But then I came to the conclusion that if anyone will be aware of the potential of these, then the advantage that we had at that time, the end of the ’90s.
The advantage that we had at that time, that we were among the very few group of countries which understood it, will turn in, one day into a huge disadvantage. Because unlike our neighbors, Israel was very much controlled by computers. Every critical infrastructure in Israel was already in the ’90s controlled by computers. Not manually by men like our neighbors did. So if one day everyone would understand the potential of these cyber offensive capabilities, we will find ourselves, because we are much more vulnerable, we will find ourselves in a disadvantage. So I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister. I was already a Major General, and I told him about this, and as a result, the Israeli government decided to found a new agency, 2002 since. In few months, it will be the 20th anniversary.
Karina: Oh, wow!
Isaac: 2002 to found a new agency that will be in charge of cyber security of critical infrastructure. I hope that the USA will do it soon. At least the President Biden declared a few days ago that he is going to do it but until today you don’t have some central agency that is in charge of... Because there are many problems there of business sector, private etcetera which are easier to be solved in a small country like Israel than in a big country like the US. But we are doing it now for 20 years. This was the second stage.
The third stage happened in... I mean, I retired from the military, I joined... This was 2002. The same year. I joined Tel Aviv University as a professor, and I founded here, Cyber Research Centre, which I still had, and in 2010 someone attacked the Iranian centrifuges, the uranium enrichment centrifuges in Iran. And this was the first time in which the whole world saw a demonstration of causing physical damage. The centrifuges collapsed. It was not something... It had nothing to do with the information held or stored in the computers of Iran, but someone succeeded in hacking into the computers that controlled the centrifuges and the centrifuges collapsed. It caught the imagination of the world media.
And when I wrote in a letter, which was 11 years old then, that one day everyone will be aware of the potential, in one day, the whole world became aware of the potential of causing physical damage using cyber technology. So I was called to the Prime Minister and he appointed me to lead a taskforce to submit to the government a 5-year plan how to prepare ourselves for the new era in which we have a huge disadvantage, because we are very much vulnerable.
Isaac: And I submitted this plan, it was approved the same year by the government, started being implemented by the end of 2011. And since then, Israel is following this plan which succeeded more than I dreamt about. Even my dreams were not so extreme as what happened in them. And the reason is that we came to the conclusion, at that time, that because computer technology is... We have a new generation every year and a half or something like this, and this means that building the capability, shrinking the physical sizes of computers etcetera. Because of this, they become so much valuable to everyone, computer chips, that there are more computer chips in developed countries like Israel or the US.
…nowadays everyone is dependent on computers, not only military organisations, defense organisations. And therefore, the citizen, the simple citizen, needs a protection as well as the big organisation.” – Dr. Isaac Ben-Israel
There are more computer chips than human beings. And then we said to ourself, okay, we were not the first one in the world to invent cyber technology, but we are going to be the first one to, in a way, get out of the closet. In a way. Get it out of the closet, because we are going to take it from the hands of intelligence defense services and make it a legitimate subject for civilian society. Because we understand that nowadays everyone is dependent on computers, not only military organisations, defense organisations. And therefore, the citizen, the simple citizen, needs a protection as well as the big organisation. And we decided to make it legitimate for education and industry.
At that time, 2011, it’s hard to believe but this is true, there was not even one university in the world, neither in Israel nor in the States, in which you could go and study cybersecurity. Only 10 years ago. It’s hard to believe but this was the situation 10 years ago. Today in Israel, and this is part of my recommendations that I submitted to the government 10 years ago, you can do it. You can learn cyber security in every university. And also, we teach cyber security in high schools, high schools not only universities, and we are doing it now for some careers and the results are very simple.
Many times in high tech, when you start something before the others, you have an advantage, which will keep going for many years. Give you a few examples. Last year, 2020, Israeli export of defensive cyber security products and services was almost 10% of the global market, and we are less than 0.1% of the globes in terms of population. Or something which is more impressive, if you take the cyber investment in business sector, only by business sector, I’m excluding the government funds but business sector globally, the business sector in the States, in Israel, in China, there are investments all over in the world, EU Summit. And you ask how much of it is going to Israel to be invested in Israel, or in the States or in China? The numbers are, in 2018, 18%, one, eight percent, of the global business sector investment in cybersecurity went to Israel, to be invested in Israel.
Isaac: 2019, it raised to 21%; 2020 to 31% and the first half of 2021 to 45%. And we get more money in absolute terms, more dollars invested, business sector cyber investment, than the US.
Isaac: And this is amazing, as I told you. Even me, I never dreamt it would be something like this.
Karina: Wow. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to share about this very impressive career you’ve had and about the development of this huge industry. It was just such a pleasure talking to you so thank you so much.
Isaac: Thank you.
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