Ex-Mossad head: Israeli cybersecurity isn’t enough

Sovereign governments face many challenges in erecting cyberdefenses, notably the many months or years it takes to develop and install defensive software.

February 14, 2018 07:41
3 minute read.
A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him

A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him. (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)


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Israel’s preparations for cyberwarfare are woefully inadequate, former Mossad director Tamir Pardo told a smart cities conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.

“Many efforts have been done, and I know about efforts in Israel,” Pardo said. “But I don’t think it’s enough, it’s far from enough. It’s a problem,” he said, adding that many people complain about expense without appreciating value. “If you are not attacked, so why the hell do you invest so much money?”

Pardo was speaking at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds at Muni-Expo, the first international cybersecurity conference of its kind for the municipal sector. He painted a dystopian picture of what a cyberattack with the power to cripple smart devices could unleash: “Let’s assume that tomorrow morning, and we’re talking about Israeli summer, [and] all the air conditioning in all the hospitals in Tel Aviv stop functioning. Or if all the data of all the schools and universities will be deleted. Whose responsibility is it?”

Pandemonium would break out, Pardo predicted, with ministries pointing fingers at each other and people taking to the streets.

Given the classified information Pardo has seen, along with the efforts of government and non-state hackers – from groups like Hezbollah and Hamas – the former spymaster doesn’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility for a cyberattack to cripple the Israeli economy.

Pardo listed other possible scenarios, with telecom providers coming under attack and all smartphones becoming inoperable. He referenced Russia’s alleged actions in Georgia as a template, where in the 2008 war, Internet access was cut off for days.

“In a certain moment, you won’t be able to call anyone, you won’t be able to send any message. Think about what chaos can come to any society,” he said.

Israel’s top spymasters say they take the risk seriously – and a quick perusal of recently retired Mossad and security chiefs show that many of them are now employed by cybersecurity companies. But the preparations are insufficient, according to Pardo.

He suggested that hackers aligned with hostile states, along with youngsters with a criminal bent could work together on the so-called “dark web,” assisting each other and transferring coding mistakes.

“Everything is possible when we’re talking about cyber. I heard about [institutions] trying to isolate certain areas or crown jewels; we are living in an era of revolution. There’s no way to stop a penetration.”

Even though cyberattacks may not leave a physical imprint, their effects can be even far-reaching and destabilizing. In other words, a cyberattack can lead to social chaos.

“These days, if I’m trying to define cyber: Cyber is a weapon, a soft and silent nuclear weapon,” Pardo said. “I can compare it to after the Second World War, when the Americans introduced the A-bomb on Japan... [With cyber] you can damage societies, you can destroy states and you can win a war without firing bullets.”

Pardo depicting several dark scenarios and cautioned against overlooking the funding and staffing of cybersecurity teams.

“We do not understand how big of a threat [it is]. We don’t understand what can be the consequences of how big of a threat [cyberattacks are]. We don’t understand what can be the consequences of those threats,” he said.

While banks were the first industry to recognize the enormity of the threat – and they’ve invested a fortune in cybersecurity – those many efforts have left financial institutions “almost not protected” at all, Pardo insisted.

Sovereign governments face many challenges in erecting cyberdefenses, notably the many months or years it takes to develop and install defensive software.

One possible antidote is to play offense, to hire “good” hackers to continuously try to penetrate infrastructure and patch up defenses methodically. But that takes significant expenditure.

Pardo, who served as head of the Mossad from 2011 to 2016, retired from the intelligence service after 35 years. Today, he advises cybersecurity firms as president and chairman of XM and chairman of the board at Sepio Systems.

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