Jan 23, 2022

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Israel is a small country – a dot on the world map – but it is a world cyber-power. 

Cyber technology refers to a set of digital technologies based on emerging media – including virtual reality, social network and multimedia), soft computing (the use of approximate calculations to provide imprecise but usable solutions to complex computational problems) cloud computing (storing and accessing data and programs over the Internet instead of your computer’s hard drive) and mobile computing. 

Cybertechnology is the entire range of computing and communication systems, from stand-alone computers to privately owned networks and the Internet itself. 

Four decades ago, cyber ​​technology was used by the US, Russia, Great Britain and Israel for intelligence and security purposes. But Israel was the first country in the world to to make cyber technology a legitimate subject for civilian industry, and to open it up to areas such as business, education, academic research and fields in normal life.

As computers became universally used and more powerful, telephone switchboards using mechanical switches were replaced by computer servers and computers were the main way to store and process information. 

In recent decades, cyber threats have become common around the world, with data bases of governments, banks, hospitals and other institutions “hacked” from afar, publishing credit card numbers and passwords, distributing fake news, stealing money through fake banking instructions and “locking” sites to hold data for ransom. Gradually, the protection of data stored in computers – information security – became an urgent new specialty. 

The Israel Defense Forces became a leader in the development of computer technology and especially computerized communication networks. For the first time, it was possible to take data collected in one location and transfer it almost immediate to another place.  

Tel Aviv University (TAU) Prof. Eviatar Matania and Amir Rapaport disclose in a new book entitled Cybermania: How Israel Became a Global Powerhouse in an Arena That Shapes the Future of Mankind, (published by Kinneret-Zmora-Dvir Publishers) that 40% of all private investments in cyber around the world are invested in Israel. They also reveal that a third of all “unicorn companies” – the term used in the venture capital industry to describe a startup company with a value of over $1 billion – are Israeli-owned


Within a decade, Israel became one of the leading countries in the cyber field, and among the first nations to recognize the size and importance of the cyber revolution. Matania is founding head and former director general of Israel National Cyber Directorate, a member of TAU’s Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center and head of the university’s International Master Degree Program in Cyber-Politics and Government and the Master Degree in Security Studies; Rapaport, is the founder of the Israel Defense magazine and cybertech conferences.


“The book tells in clear language the story of the cyber revolution of the previous decade in which cyber became a significant part of our lives and of the transformation of Israel in that decade into a cyber-powerhouse,” said Matania, who is also an adjunct professor at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government.


“It’s a unique phenomenon. Israel leads in various indices in the world of technology and security, but always in relative terms – per capita or by relative size. For example, Israel is strong in academic publications per capita, or in the percentage of national expenditure on research and development, where it is a world leader along with South Korea. But when looking at absolute numbers, it is clear that other countries like the US and China overshadow us by a considerable margin in absolute investment in research and development.”


In cyber, on the other hand, Israel is a global powerhouse in absolute numbers. Today, cyber accounts for 15% of Israeli hi-tech exports, which constitute about half of the total exports of the State of Israel, and it will only grow. These are amazing numbers, but they do not show the whole picture. After all, there are metrics that cannot be measured, such as defense capabilities. Within a decade, Israel has become a very significant player in the new cyber-security and cyber-economy arena.”


The book is based, among other things, on the personal experience of Matania, who established and served as the head of the National Cyber bureau and later as the director general of the National Cyber Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office, reporting directly to the prime minister from 2012 until 2018. 


“The tipping point of Israel’s journey to become a cyber-power was a visit by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Unit 8200 in 2010,” recalled Matania. “Netanyahu was astonished by what he heard from the soldiers. He understood that the new world of cyber posed an extraordinary risk to Israel, as the country would be vulnerable to attacks from anywhere in the world. It should be understood that regarding cyber, everyone is everyone’s neighbor – Israel is a neighbor not only of Syria and Egypt but also of Russia and China. At the same time, Netanyahu was able to see the cyber opportunity for a small country like Israel, which specializes in both technology and security, to take the initiative.”


At the end of the visit, Netanyahu sat down with his military secretary, Major-General Yohanan Locker, and asked him to design a three-vertices cyber system, at the top of which stands security and its two bases being academia and industry. 


Locker sought out Major-General (Res.) Prof. Yitzhak Ben-Israel, then head of the National Council for Research and Development and now head of TAU’s Cyber Center. He gave Ben-Israel the task of heading Israel’s national cyber venture, whose aim was to formulate a comprehensive national cyber plan. This was the first of its kind in the world, and Israel aimed at being one of the five leading cyber powers in the world. But the end result was even better than that. 


“The national cyber system that I headed was the first of its kind in the world,” said Matania.  “This is a body that reports directly to the prime minister, like the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), for example. There was an in-depth government understanding that to build a world-leading national ecosystem, it was not enough to wait for the free market to do its thing. Large budgets were invested in academia and industry and in building dedicated cyber defense capabilities. For example, six cyber research centers have been established at universities, including at Tel Aviv University, and the chief scientist of the Israel Innovation Authority has directed investments in startups in the general direction of cyber activities.”


In addition, government projects invested in defense initiatives where soldiers who had been honorably discharged from military service founded more and more startup companies. That’s how Israel got the jump on the whole world. The British were the second in the world, and that was only because the then British Ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, studied the structure and the Israeli strategy and then returned to London and was appointed chief of cyber in the UK Cabinet Office, according to Matania. 


Israel’s cyber capabilities – in the private market, in the government and in the defense establishment – also leverage its political achievements. “When Israel signs a cyber-defense alliance with Cyprus and Greece, it does not necessarily need Cyprus or Greece to upgrade its cyber defense, but in return for defense, we get payback in other areas.” Israel has become synonymous with cyber, so much so that today, it is involved in cyber in the international arena.”