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Asia turns to Israel's tech warriors for cyberprotection

Veterans of IDF's elite Unit 8200 bring expertise to the private sector

The Israel Defense Forces recruits the most talented youngsters to work on their intelligence units.(Photo courtesy of the Israel Defense Forces)

JERUSALEM -- With three years left in the countdown to the Tokyo Olympics, Japan's government is increasingly concerned that a major cyberattack could ruin the spectacle. A hit on the railroad system, electric grid or water utilities could be devastating.

Enter veterans of an elite intelligence unit within the Israel Defense Forces.

Surrounded by hostile countries, Israel has long sought a qualitative edge in surveillance and other defense technology. Now, its expertise is attracting attention from governments and multinational companies worried about hackers. This is why Tamayo Marukawa, the minister in charge of the Tokyo Olympics, and two fellow cabinet members visited Israel in May to seek advice.

The two countries signed several strategic agreements during the visit.

A closer look at Israel's myriad tech companies show that many of their core personnel hail from the IDF's Unit 8200. The unit -- the equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency or Britain's Government Communications Headquarters -- specializes in intercepting emails, phone calls and social media as well as listening in on military and diplomatic traffic.

Unit 8200 is said to have worked closely with U.S. intelligence to plant the Stuxnet computer virus that impeded Iran's nuclear program.

In mid-July, U.S. cybersecurity company Symantec announced it was buying Fireglass, an Israeli company focused on protecting corporate computer systems from malicious emails and web content. The value of the deal was not disclosed, but it is believed to be in the vicinity of $250 million. Dan Amiga, Fireglass' chief technology officer, served in Unit 8200.

Outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, center, visits PM Netanyahu with incoming new Chief of Staff, Major General Gadi Eisenkot, in February 2015. (Photo by Israel Government Press Office photographer Avi Ohayon)

Israeli intelligence has produced numerous experts who have ventured into the private tech sector. The list includes members of the top brass, who served their country for decades. Former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, for example, is now president of Deep Instinct, an Israeli startup at the forefront of the artificial intelligence wave.

Start young

The military continues to devote enormous resources to technology, computer systems and training the next generation of cyberwarriors. "There are no borders in this war," Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the IDF's current chief of staff, recently told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. He was referring to the cyberattack threat.

To keep the online enemy at bay, Israel's intelligence units need the best and the brightest. Pre-screening begins long before 18-year-old high school graduates are conscripted for mandatory IDF service. By seventh grade, the school system -- in conjunction with the Defense Ministry -- is already looking for students with an aptitude for mathematics, sciences, languages and computers.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who served in the IDF's elite Maglan special forces, often tells audiences that a record number of Israeli youngsters are pursuing the highest level of math offered in schools. Many, if not most, of these kids will be scouted for Unit 8200.

The recruits will have their work cut out for them.

"Cyberthreats on critical infrastructure are a growing concern," said Robert Bell, who is in charge of business development at Jerusalem-based cybersecurity company ICS2. "The threat landscape has evolved dramatically over the past few years, making energy and water utilities more aware of the importance of acting to address this risk."

Bell said that while threats to information systems are nothing new, "it is only very recently that this threat is being aimed directly at industrial control systems. The rapid connection of these previously isolated structures to the internet has exposed their inherent vulnerabilities to the cybercriminal community."

And since Israel's defense establishment is confronting the threat head-on, it is little wonder Asia is knocking on the door.

Cybereason, an Israeli company that specializes in reducing response times in pinpointing cyberattacks, raised $100 million from Japan's SoftBank Group in June.

India is also keen on cybersecurity cooperation with Israel. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent visit to the Holy Land, the countries signed deals worth billions of dollars and committed to working closely on the online front.

"India, Israel and Japan, in neat alphabetical order, have no historical baggage, only goodwill to carry forward," said Tomohiko Taniguchi, a special adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. With Modi's India building stronger strategic ties with both Japan and the U.S., Israel could join in with its world-renowned cybersavvy -- turning a "tricycle" into a "smart 4WD," as Taniguchi put it.

Last year, there were 72 investment rounds focused on Israel's cybersecurity industry, according to CB Insights, a U.S. venture capital database that analyzes and monitors global technological activity. The figure was up 16% on the year.

Overall funding for cybersecurity companies grew by 23%, to $689 million. Figures for 2017 are not in yet, but the constant activity makes it a safe bet that Israeli companies will continue to grow -- drawing ever more interest from Asia.

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