Israel is not part of the signals intelligence arrangement between the "five eyes" Western nations (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the United States). But it still managed to become a world leader in cyber-intelligence and cybersecurity applications, particularly through sponsoring talented young computer geeks.
Today, the "cyber-superpowers" are generally considered to be China, Israel, Russia, Britain and the US.
Israel's civilian intelligence and security organisations - Mossad and Shin Bet respectively - are publicly well known. But its sigint organisation, Unit 8200, which is subordinate to military intelligence agency Aman, has a much lower profile, despite being the largest unit in the Israel Defence Forces.
Most Australians had probably not heard of Unit 8200 until 2010, when Australian security experts thought it likely that the unit had developed the Stuxnet virus, which was attacking several computer systems, including those that ran Iran's nuclear-research centrifuges. Stuxnet targets programmable logic controllers that allow the automation of electromechanical processes, such as those used to control industrial processes, including centrifuges for separating nuclear material. In Iran's case, Stuxnet reportedly caused the fast-spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart while masking what was happening.
Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli intelligence had tipped off Australian security authorities about the 2017 Etihad bomb plot in Sydney. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton later acknowledged that intelligence from Unit 8200 was used to thwart the planned attack.
The Israeli education system plays an important part in the country's cyber-development. Most schools have cybersecurity classes. (Cybersecurity also covers hacking and cyber-offensive activities.) Six university centres are now dedicated to cybersecurity research. Unit 8200 scouts talented 18-year-olds straight out of school. While teenage Western hackers may be prosecuted and banned from using the internet, Israel offers its hackers employment in the unit. Its 8200 members go on to join Israeli electronics companies after their 32 months' compulsory military service.
While teen Western hackers are often prosecuted, Israel offers its hackers jobs.
In 2013, Israel established a cyber-business park and campus at Beersheba (of Australian cavalry charge fame) to bring together Israel's leading cyber-researchers and companies, and government cyber-intelligence and cybersecurity organisations. There are now more than 420 cybersecurity companies clustered around Beersheba and Tel Aviv, while Israel has more than 280,000 cybertech workers. Even so, it can't fill 15,000 vacant jobs - despite the fact that tech workers earn more than twice the average wage.
Israel's entrepreneurial approach has attracted US and European multinationals keen to exploit Israeli talent and a less-inhibited research environment; they include Cisco, Deutsche Telekom, EMC, IBM, Lockheed Martin and PayPal.
Many of Israel's cybersecurity start-ups are formed by Unit 8200 "graduates". In May this year, it emerged publicly that NSO, a company founded by former unit members, developed "Pegasus" software in 2011 that can remotely and covertly manipulate a smartphone. The software allows the user to listen to calls, read communications, use the microphone to eavesdrop on conversations, and take photos with the phone's camera. Pegasus can also access a phone's stored financial account password information, making it easier to access accounts.
NSO says it provides "authorised governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime". At least 45 countries now use Pegasus, but its use sometimes goes beyond combating terrorism and crime. Saudi Arabia apparently used Pegasus software to monitor the phone calls of journalist Jamal Khashoggi before he was murdered by Saudi agents. It's been used elsewhere to monitor dissidents and human-rights activists.
Another important Israeli cyber-export is facial-recognition software. This allows a person's identity to be examined in depth in a few minutes. Intelligence and law-enforcement agencies in authoritarian countries, such as China, are able to search vast numbers of stored faces looking for matches and associations. Data can then be cross-checked against the personal information that most people upload online voluntarily, as well as against commercial databanks that store buying activities, travel and so on.
Coincidentally, facial recognition has made it much more difficult for Western spy agencies to provide credible background cover for its agents, or for them to operate covertly in countries such as Russia and China. Criminals can also acquire facial-recognition technology to identify undercover police, making it far riskier to penetrate drug cartels and crime groups.
Israeli industry welcomes young graduates of Unit 8200 but also senior intelligence executives, who are seen to bring useful attributes to business. This isn't often the case in Australia, although the well-respected former director-general of ASIO and ASIS, David Irvine, now chairs the influential Foreign Investment Review Board.
In Israel, by contrast, a career in intelligence is usually a launchpad for a lucrative career in corporate intelligence, or other specialist advisory and consultancy work.
In 2017 (the most recent year for which data is available), Israel's cyber-exports generated more than $US3.8 billion. National-security cyber-applications are now an important element of Israel's tech-fuelled economy, generating about 45 per cent, by value, of the country's exports.
While Australia would have reservations about selling cyber-intelligence and cybersecurity methodology and software to many of Israel's less-savoury customers, Israel shows what can be achieved in the cybertechnology commercial space with the right level of government commitment and leadership.
- Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the Australian National University's centre for military and security law.