June 3, 2017 5:24 am JST

Japan taking cues from Israel on cybersecurity

In wake of WannaCry, Tokyo looks to boost defenses ahead of 2020 Olympics

JIRO YOSHINO and ELI GARSHOWITZ, Nikkei staff writers

A map compiled by British company Malware Tech displays the geographical distribution of the WannaCry ransomware cyber-attack over the past twenty-four hours as seen on a computer screen in Portland, U.S. on May 12. © AP

TOKYO -- With the recent wave of ransomware attacks highlighting the dangers of growing internet connectivity across the world, Japan is looking toward Israel's military-linked expertise in cybersecurity to protect its networks ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Hiroshige Seko, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, signed an agreement with Israel in early May for greater cooperation on cyberdefenses. This marks the first cabinet-level deal between the two countries on cybersecurity.

Only a handful of other countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., are considered for such strategic partnerships, said the head of Israel's National Cyber Bureau, Eviatar Matania.

The U.K. and Brazil experienced a surge in cyberattacks while hosting recent Olympic Games. The Japanese government worries it could suffer a similar fate in 2020. It hopes to mitigate such risks by working closer with Israel.

Israel's advancements in cybersecurity are closely tied to national defense. The country has been at odds with its Arab neighbors throughout its existence. As intelligence gathering became a key aspect of modern warfare, Israel initially relied on traditional tactics like tapping phones.

But its focus shifted to the internet in the 2000s, according to Kobi Samboursky, a former intelligence officer in the military and current managing partner of Glilot Capital Partners.

The extent of Israel's ability became clear in 2010, when it attacked and disabled part of Iran's nuclear facilities with software it reportedly developed jointly with the U.S. Some 16% of global investment in cybersecurity happens in Israel,  even though the country accounts for just 0.1% of the world's population. It is home to over 300 companies in the field.

Ex-military officers have played a crucial role in this development. Israelis are drafted when they are 18. But the military starts screening potential recruits to Unit 8200, the spy unit Samboursky was part of, when they are just 16.

Only the top 1% make it to the unit, said Nadav Zafrir, its former commander and current chief executive of investment company Team8.

A growing number of former team members are setting up cybersecurity companies after their service, using their experience with different types of attacks to come up with effective protections. Many are turning to artificial intelligence.

With the internet playing an ever-growing role in society, it is impossible for humans to protect networks and devices alone. The Kela Group has developed a system to automatically detect signs of an attack. The company is replicating the mind of an Israeli military cybersecurity officer through AI, said the group's Japan chief, Doron Levit.

Rival Cybereason boasts it can detect any type of attack on corporate IT systems by first using AI to "learn" how the systems function under normal circumstances, and using that information to detect unusual activity. The company announced May 19 that it will provide Japan with an anti-ransomware program for free, paving the way for future business opportunities here.

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