After years of failing to develop a broad counter-intelligence strategy to cope with Russian and Chinese attempts to use cyber operations to spy on Israel, the defense establishment may finally be pushing back in a more unified fashion.
The Jerusalem Post’s sister-publication Maariv reported on Saturday that the National Security Council (NSC) will present the security cabinet with a special report in the coming days on the defense aspects of large foreign investments. The effort was reportedly one of several moves in which NSC chief Meir Ben-Shabbat, appointed in late 2017, has pushed for. The NSC advises the prime minister on national security issues.
Part of the report, which was assigned to the NSC three months ago, will specifically address Russian and Chinese cyber spying and a counter-intelligence strategy.
The report, especially about cyber spying, will be diving into a complex web of competing priorities which are important to the state.
On one hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has strongly promoted foreign investment, especially from China, in massive new infrastructure projects.
Broadly speaking, IDF Unit 8200 (“the Israeli NSA”), the Mossad and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) have believed that their cyber efforts have been strong in helping Israel avoid the massive cyber national security breaches which the US has experienced in recent years.
However, even Israeli intelligence and defense officials have become more conscious that the Israeli private sector and other aspects of defense may not be keeping up with the speed of foreign investment and the profound cyber spying challenges which Russia and China can pose.
On January 7, Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman made an unusual public warning about a foreign country’s cyber interference in Israel’s upcoming election. It was later understood that Argaman was referring to Russia.
Even before that, Yediot Aharonot published a report in July that China and Russia had penetrated Israeli electronic networks far more deeply than anyone had expected.
At the time, the report also indicated that the Shin Bet was addressing the issue quietly, contacting private companies or ministries that were penetrated to help resolve the issue, but trying to keep a lid on news of the penetration getting out to the wider public.
Argaman’s public announcement – although he never said the word Russia, and Moscow’s involvement was understood by the description he gave – was a break with that quiet policy.
It may also have foreshadowed the more comprehensive counter-intelligence campaign to Russian and Chinese cyber spying efforts that Israeli intelligence may be taking as part of the new NSC report.
However, it is far from a consensus among cyber and intelligence experts that Russia and China’s penetration has gotten into any critical systems.
For example, in August, former Israeli cyber chief Buky Carmeli told the Post in his first interview since stepping down that even as major world cyber powers like Russia, China and the US were unmatched, “we do not find them [Russia and China] in places that are really disturbing.”
Carmeli gave credit to the Shin Bet for initiating a serious cyberdefense as early as 2002.
He said that the Shin Bet’s early cyberdefense efforts meant Israel was more ready to combat cyber spying than others and was more “able to uncover trails from these cyber powers. And we find them mostly in noncritical systems – sometimes you need to give a pawn” to win the long game, he said.
Reacting to allegations that the Chinese had used elaborate sham business negotiations to try to appropriate Israeli technologies, he said, “I would rather live in a state where we are inventing things and then defend them, than in a state that doesn’t have these people and new ideas.”
Similarly, a top former Israeli intelligence cyber official has told the Post that Russian and Chinese cyber spying attempts are not a zero-sum game.
Discussing the differences between Russia and China, he said that Russia is more problematic because it is working strategically with countries in the area and could pass on intelligence it obtains to the Bashar Assad regime in Syria.
In contrast, he said that China has no real interest against Israel and just collects intelligence from the entire world. He said this means the likelihood that China will share what it learns about Israel with Jerusalem’s adversaries is much lower than with the Russians.
The former intelligence official even played down current US efforts to ban the use of Chinese cellphones and some other Chinese technologies to address concerns of spying, calling them mostly public relations or part of the broader trade war for global influence.
He said that elements of Chinese technology are so deeply ingrained in most of the world’s technological infrastructure, including in the US, that there is essentially no way to be free of it even in the medium term.
In January, former Shin Bet cyber chief Erez Kreiner told the Post that Israel’s cyber intelligence community utilizes defenses covering “everything you can imagine and even beyond” to prevent “a clear and present danger” to Israeli elections.
Kreiner also discussed evolution of the Shin Bet’s cyber abilities during his long tenure, saying that the agency’s technology unit “was always very strong,” but that it had evolved “from being a facilitator of operations” to “becoming its own area of operations, but with completely different rules not limited by the laws of physics.”
Likewise, when asked about a 2016 speech by former Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen about increased abilities to identify cyberattackers, he said the agency “has some capabilities which collect information which cannot be brought to court without revealing sources and methods which adversaries are unaware of.”
As the NSC presents its counter-intelligence report in the coming days, the internal battle will be on within Israel’s government for how much it sounds the alarm and treats Russian and Chinese cyber activities as serious threats or merely part of doing business in the modern technological world.