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Experts: Cyber Threat Being Met With Same Apathy As Terrorism Before It

By Victor Cabrera and Tara Kavaler | The Media Line

January 31, 2019

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addresses the Cybertech 2019 conference in Tel Aviv. (Credit: Gilad Kvalerchik)
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Industry insiders warn that democratic nations have failed to acknowledge the extent of the danger and thus are not cooperating effectively

Western countries are ignoring the severity of the threat posed by cyberattacks in the same way they initially failed to tackle the scourge of terrorism, according to experts that descended on Tel Aviv this week for the Cybertech 2019 conference. The refusal to adequately address the issue, largely the byproduct of a desire to “save face,” has thrown a wrench in government-to-government cooperation which, in turn, is contributing to the problem.

Founders and CEOs of the world’s top data and cyber risk management firms—including Checkpoint, IBM and Microsoft—highlighted the resulting difficulty of neutralizing a huge volume of daily attacks across multiple platforms, and called for the highest level of collaboration if nations are to stay secure amid lightning-quick changes in the digital realm.

The three-day summit, the largest cyber event outside of the United States, is a business, development and networking opportunity for over 1,500 government officials and industry insiders from over 80 states.

Haim Tomer, a former officer in Israel’s Mossad spy agency, told The Media Line that “cybersecurity cooperation on the national level very much resembles the beginning of modern terrorism in the West in the 1970s, when the issue was dealt with privately so as not to admit vulnerability.”

It took years for countries to adopt a proper approach, he elaborated, but thereafter “things started to move vis-à-vis cooperation between governments and security services. In a very short time, the terrorism threat eventually shrunk to a manageable level.”

Over the next few decades, the “Internet of Things” will integrate the functioning of disparate items ranging from cars to household appliances, energy infrastructure to cell phones, in a manner that streamlines and improves overall performance. While this progress will enhance optimization, so too will such connectivity increase the vulnerability of networks.

“What might matter most to a hospital will not be the same for a manufacturing plant and will not be the same for the state,” Dr. Zulfikar Ramzan, Chief Technology Officer at RSA, a cybersecurity firm, told The Media Line. “It is not possible to protect yourself against every attack so we need to focus our efforts on the most pressing elements.

“One [law enforcement] agency gave me a startling statistic: 60 percent of small to medium-sized organizations go out of business within six months of a security breach,” he noted. “We are in a world that is going to get infinitely more complex before it gets any simpler. If you don’t take a risk-driven view you are going to be pretty much out of luck when it comes to protecting your environment.”

Yiftach Ron-Tal, an executive at the Israel Electric Corporation, revealed to The Media Line that the state-owned energy distributor “presently defends against 200 million cyber threats annually. This means that cooperation between companies is essential if objectives like a smart grid and strategic energy storage are to become a secure reality in the future.”

However, he conceded, there are obstacles still preventing such business-to-business dealings, many of them unrelated to technology.

“If others know that you’ve been breached your reputation suffers, but cooperation is not about sharing tech secrets it’s about raising alarms,” Ron-Tal said. “True collaboration has to be about sharing details in real-time, not just frequent updates. If something happens in the U.S. or in Europe, I need to know quickly in order to prepare for a likely event.”

At the micro level, Dr. Sridhar Muppidi, Fellow and Chief Technology Officer at IBM, explained to The Media Line that individuals are beginning to have more control over their personal information, which therefore is becoming more readily available and, as a corollary, exposed.

“You will see very soon those who bring their own identities around with them. The future is one of controlling data and consent [regarding who is given access to it].” In the meantime, Dr. Muppidi advises Internet users to practice good online “hygiene” by choosing strong passwords and not recycling old ones.

Israel has been positioning itself as a leader in cyber security. In his address to the conference, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pointed out that the Jewish state “is one-tenth of one percent of the world’s population [but] we are receiving 20% of the global share in private cyber security investments.” He also invited businesses to move their research labs to Israel while reiterating his commitment to keeping taxes low and limiting government intervention.

With Israeli elections looming, the imperative of securing computer systems has entered the collective consciousness as Jerusalem takes measures to prevent meddling similar to that which marred the 2016 U.S. presidential vote.

“The most serious aspect of [cyber-attacks] for Western countries is the threat to democracy,” former Mossad official Tomer concluded. “The possibility to annihilate, disturb, or influence the democratic process is the number one danger to Israel.”

(Victor Cabrera and Tara Kavaler are interns in
The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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