BEERSHEBA, ISRAEL – Military necessity has given Israel a world lead in cybersecurity technology, and Japan’s public and private sectors are taking notice. Although the nations’ geopolitical situations are sharply different, cybersecurity concerns have been growing for Japan and it lacks immediate answers.
Both countries stand to gain from collaborating in the field. Japan is seeking skilled cybersecurity professionals after an attack on its national pension servers and as it prepares to host the 2020 Olympics, while Israel is trying to position cybersecurity as a valuable export industry.
Israel has more than 250 specialized cybersecurity firms. The outstanding ones are often headed by former members of Unit 8200, the Israeli army’s elite cyberwarfare unit.
Giant office buildings look out over the desert in the city of Beersheba in southern Israel. The government hopes to build a kind of cybercity there by 2022, home to 20,000 members of the military’s cyberwarfare unit as well as universities and corporate offices.
More than 30 of the world’s technology giants, including IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp., have already opened offices in Beersheba.
“Industry, government and academia, plus the military, will all come together on the front lines of the fight against cyberattacks,” said an executive at a cybersecurity firm in the city.
Israel’s conscription system sees all high school graduates drafted into the military for two to three years, with the most talented of the cohort assigned to Unit 8200.
The unit is said to have hacked into Syria’s anti-aircraft radar network to knock it out before carrying out airstrikes in 2007.
And in 2010, centrifuges used in Iran’s uranium enrichment program were sent spinning out of control by a virus of unclear origins. The best guess was that it was developed by Israel and the United States.
In 2011, Israel’s National Cyber Bureau was set up directly under the prime minister’s office to deal with increasing threats.
“Israeli firms’ cybertechnology is now a vital export product,” said the bureau’s head of research and analysis, Eyal Balicer.
State-owned power utility Israel Electric Corp. started a subsidiary in 2013 called CyberGym that provides cyberdefense training through jarringly real simulations of cyberattacks.
In one such training session conducted at a facility in Hadera, a 90-minute drive from Tel Aviv, the attacking Red Team was tasked with hacking into systems controlling facilities in the defending Blue Team’s room, remotely turning off the lights and sending water gushing out of a boiler.
IEC cybersecurity expert Leonid Rozenblum said Israel’s power utility suffers large numbers of cyberattacks on a day-to-day basis.
“It’s absolutely necessary for us to train up staff to protect our vital infrastructure,” Rozenblum said.
Around 2,000 people have been through the training so far, including military and police personnel from locations as diverse as Spain and Vietnam, as well as representatives of corporate Japan.
When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Israel in January last year, he and counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu said the two nations would cooperate against cyberattacks.
That agreement triggered a rush in Israeli cybersecurity companies marketing their businesses to Japan. Israeli firms have also been involved in back-room talks with Japanese bureaucrats as they size up the challenges of the Olympics.
Hiroyuki Nara, who heads the Tel Aviv office of the Japan External Trade Organization, said Israeli firms are aiming to use the tournament as a chance to break in to the Japanese market.
A booth showcasing Israeli firms, including defense technology company Israel Aerospace Industries, captured particular attention at the Special Equipment Exhibition & Conference for Anti-Terrorism, a counterterrorism technology convention at the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition center in October.
The following month saw executives from IAI and two Japanese bureaucrats huddled around a table at a restaurant in a luxury hotel in Tel Aviv. The bureaucrats, in charge of Japan’s new My Number social security system and privacy protection law, were conducting an appraisal of Israeli technology.
And when the Japanese Embassy in Israel held an event on Jan. 25 to promote the exchange of cybersecurity businesses in both countries, about 300 people attended, including officials from a dozen Japanese companies.
“Japan is a big market. I attended this event to get a foothold in the market,” said an official from an Israeli cybersecurity company.
According to figures by Japan’s Information-Technology Promotion Agency, the country’s public and private sectors are short of about 80,000 people needed to properly defend against cyberattacks.
Japan’s government is struggling to close that gap, despite a recent wave of recruitment and education initiatives.
A consortium of companies put on a series of events nationwide several times a year to pique young people’s interest. The series is dubbed “Security Camp.”
And the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is planning to kick off a national examination in cybersecurity in April.
Despite a clear dearth of cybersecurity firms at home, government and corporate decision makers remain cautious about entrusting vital systems with foreign hands.
Israel’s image is of particular concern, with the country’s settlements program and ongoing tension with the Palestinians having attracted criticism from the European Union and other world bodies.
Industry sources say doing business with a country that uses technology born out of military applications requires a careful weighing of the benefits and risks.
“Once it’s built, a cybersecurity system can’t be easily replaced,” an Israel-based individual working with a Japanese firm said about the judgment needed when buying products from the country.