Does Stuxnet Mean Cyberwar?
If so, are we ready?
5:30 PM, Oct 4, 2010 • By LEE SMITH
The apparent success of Stuxnet suggests that the best Computer Network Defense (CND) is a good offense, or CNA and CNE capacity, the latter two are obviously the most highly classified aspects of U.S. cyberwarfare. To return to the air power analogy, offense has outpaced defensive countermeasures from the beginning. Indeed, ideas about how to use offensive air power are ever evolving into more unpredictable scenarios. “Forty years after the Wright Brothers, half of the capitals of Europe were turned to rubble by airpower,” says Baker. “No one imagined that in 1905.” Nor before 9/11 had many imagined terrorists using air power to such effect.
Despite our size and financial resources, we were vulnerable on 9/11 for the same reason we still are today: The advantage in cyberwar goes not necessarily to those who have the most money and manpower, but to those who are most capable of surprise, improvisation and cunning, a few of the qualities that distinguish Israel’s elite combat units. This applies even to those parts of the Israeli Defense Force that are not primarily tech units, explains Saul Singer, co-author, with Dan Senor, of Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle. “The military is what makes Israel so driven,” says Singer. “The leadership skills, the ability to improvise and innovate, this comes out of military training, even if you are not exposed to tech work.”
However, elite IDF units are always technologically advanced, says Shmuel Bar, a veteran of the Israeli intelligence community and founder of IntuView, an Israeli tech company that has developed an “artificial intuition” technology that interprets and summarizes Islamic- and/or terrorist-related material. Bar says that while Unit 8200 is the most famous Israeli high-tech outfit, there are many other units with very advanced technological capabilities in all areas of IT. “All of these units,” says Bar, “get a percentage of the elite kids recruited right out of high school.”
The military identifies the most talented kids and brings them in sometimes as early as two years before they’re even scheduled to start their compulsory service. Says Bar: “They ask the kids, do you want to spend three years in a regular military unit - something anyone can do - or contribute to the country in a way that only a select few can do, add a few years to your service and at the same time receive unparalleled on the job training that will be invaluable in your future resume?”
Another two years in addition to the compulsory three, plus the two years prior to duty, and you have 25-year-olds with seven years of real-world—high-pressure—experience in tech before they even enter college. This is the engine of Israel’s thriving IT industry, which has more companies listed on NASDAQ than any other country except for the U.S. (Indeed, the $3 billion annual aid package to Israel gets the U.S. government in on the ground floor of some of this Israeli tech R&D.)
But just as military training prepares Israel’s most talented and ambitious for the business world, their private sector work is not dissimilar from what these tech units do when they’re called back for reserve duty, a requirement for all Israeli men up to the age of 40. This back and forth ties the business sector to the military in a fashion many countries may envy but cannot emulate.
Even those countries that do have conscript armies, says Singer, are paradoxically at a disadvantage. “These armies are less tech-oriented because they are based more on masses of soldiers. Since Israel has never enjoyed numerical superiority over its enemies,” Singer continues, “it had to rely on its training and technological advancement.”
“What percentage of the U.S.’s high-tech sector has even been in the military or the intelligence services?” asks Bar. “Even if you wanted to recruit your top 5 percent, you’re working against a left-wing academic culture that doesn’t want to ‘collaborate’ with those they perceive as ‘the forces of darkness.’ In Israel, the military can co-opt high school teachers to help them hunt talent and even the most left-wing professors have served in the army and know that Iranian nukes are not going to bypass their home just because they’re left wing.”
Indeed, while in some Israeli circles there’s concern that urbane and international Tel Aviv’s relationship to the rest of Israel is ambivalent, if not detached, the reality is different. Some of those high-salaried IT CEOs sampling the Gamla at a Neve Tsedek wine bar are the same reservists in the elite tech units serving on the front lines of cyberwar.
How good are the Israelis at this new way of making war? “If we were not very advanced,” says Bar, “the American military and homeland security establishment would not have such a keen interest in what we are doing, and we would not be able to sell to the American market. I think that says it all.”
Or, it says as much as anyone’s willing to say right now about Israel’s cyberwar abilities.