Cyber threat: Israel’s airports prepare for the future of security

Cyber security is a global problem and worldwide the number of passengers is estimated to increase from 7 billion today to 14 billion in 2029.

June 6, 2019 02:05
3 minute read.
An El Al plane in Ben Gurion Airport

An El Al plane in Ben Gurion Airport. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Anarchists, radical hackers, terrorists, disgruntled employees, organized criminals and states make up the range of potential cyber threats, according to Roee Laufer, head of Cyber and Information Security at the Israel Airports Authority (IAA).

Laufer spoke recently in Tel Aviv at the International Defense, HLS & Cyber Expo (ISDEF) alongside Roni Tidhar, head of international consulting services for IAA. Both described different sides of how Israel’s pioneering security is protecting Ben-Gurion Airport and other airports and border crossings.

Cyber security is a global problem, and the number of passengers worldwide is estimated to increase from seven billion today to 14 billion in 2029. But there is a problem. Airports are part of traditional infrastructure, and they are often dealing with technologies that are 20-30 years old. They are adapting, seeing digitization as a core process with information technology at the center, but as things change, the cyber threat is also at the gate, trying to get in.

“We see a rapid increase in incidents of cyber security issues,” Laufer said, describing how they are increasing in numbers and sophistication around the world. At the most serious end are state-sponsored threats, he said, mentioning disputes in the South China Sea and Ukraine. But he also discussed cases where a teenager disrupted communications at an airport or a hacker targeted Australia.

“So you need to re-think and change concepts,” said Laufer. “Also, we need to think of airports as not just the screens that we see when we walk in, or even the complex systems used to communicate with aircraft. Airports are also basically a giant shopping mall. There are numerous suppliers involved in the supply chain that enables an airport to operate. Throughout that chain are cyber threats.”

Laufer sketched out concentric circles of danger. These include the perimeter of the airport, computerized infrastructure, sensitive data and critical assets. What that means is that you have different layers that can be penetrated, such as hackers trying to get information on passengers, or a protester seeking to broadcast over the intercom or post something on the screens.

The IAA is in charge of both airports in Israel, and border crossings with Egypt and Jordan. “So the holistic approach is challenging,” he said. “It gives us a unique ability to look at the entire operation coast to coast.”

The struggle for the IAA and the world when it comes to cyber security is that traditional security focused on large numbers of security personnel, such as armed responders. But what about cyber security staff? Although Israel doesn’t discuss specifics of its own method, Laufer noted that some airports abroad might have 500 physical security personnel and just several cyber security members.

That is not “a good place,” he said. “The proportions are not there. All you need is a keyboard and Internet connection, [and] you can order online DNS attacks.”

With this evolving threat, many airports are seeking larger budgets. “We need to think like an attacker,” he says, “to prepare and to understand our vulnerabilities.”

Tidhar expanded on the cyber issue by looking at Israel’s approach as a whole. Israel must be prepared for all eventualities, including floods, earthquakes and hazardous materials events. Terrorism is also part of the list of threats. He also noted that Israel faces rockets, and that this provides the unique experience of operating an airport during conflicts, such as the one in Gaza.

Technology and innovation are also changing the notion of securing airports. For instance, drones now pose a hazard, and even tunneling. “Risk management is embedded in everything we do, because we are doing it so long it is automatic process,” said Tidhar.

He emphasized Israel’s approach to security combines brains and technology to be both proactive and preventative. He spoke generally because Israel does not reveal its cards, but from the second a person arrives at the perimeter of the airport to boarding the plane, he passes through various layers of security, some of which they never see or feel. At each stage there are measures, adding up to more than a 100 different aspects to prevent an attacker from executing his plan, Tidhar said. “We are fine tuning every day bits and pieces,” he said. “It is an art how to deal with growing numbers [of passengers].”

The ISDEF 2019 was a good venue for the IAA to discuss its methods. Arrayed outside the speaking area were new technologies for facial recognition by a company called Cortica, and numerous anti-drone gadgets. Israel is a leader in a variety of these technologies, many of which were required due to the unique and complex threats Israel faces.

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