Israel and Unit 61398

Note: This blog was written days before the revelations in The New York Times (Feb. 19) about China’s secret army of cyberwarriors and their attack plans Chinese Army Unit Is Seen as Tied to Hacking Against U.S. 

History is replete with examples of small nations exercising outsized influence. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Florentine bankers controlled so much credit they were able to dictate the foreign policy of remote kings in England and France. In the 16th century, the Spice Islands, tiny specks in the vast Pacific Ocean, caused never-ending war between the largest European powers. In the last 50 years, tiny Hong Kong has exerted a similar influence in Asian commerce. The next decades may find Israel in a similar role: a tiny yet indispensable power able to change the world with a keystroke.

Cyber war is for real. In the United States, Europe and Israel, sovereign, military and commercial entities have come to the realization that hacking into and manipulating computer programs poses a great threat. Not a day passes without a revelation that someone has been or is being attacked. The intention may be to gather information for a future attack or to destroy in real time an organization’s ability to function. In the past few months, U.S. security agencies, banks, defense contractors, newspapers and social media sites have all been attacked.

The first Israeli computer-The start of it all

In an outright use of computer viruses as weapons, the U.S. and Israel have attacked the Iranian nuclear program with the goal of delaying its functionality. Defense analysts believe that programmers have disabled Iranian and Syrian radar without any need for conventional strikes. Cyberwarfare is now an arrow in the quiver of military options. The Stuxnet virus may be only the tip of the iceberg of Israeli/American-developed malware aimed at destroying the opposition’s weapons or infrastructure.

Who are the players in this new arena? There appear to be four major ones and we don’t know how many smaller ones. The major players are the U.S, China, Russia and Israel. Let’s explore the dynamics among them for a moment, and Israel’s relationships with the first three. China’s “peaceful rise” is over. China’s actions are now Parasitoid, that is, they don’t mind killing their host. The Chinese military, with or without the knowledge of its political leadership, is testing out its cyber weapons against a large array of targets. Doctorate-level computer scientists are working for the CCP. The CCP wants U.S. defense-industry expertise. They want U.S. commercial expertise. The Chinese also want to know whom their dissidents are in touch with; they need to conduct cyberwarfare to find out.

Russia has a large number of computer scientists with very advanced computational powers. They can and do create programs that hack into everything, committing credit-card fraud, banking-asset theft and identity phishing. They often use the porn industry to accomplish this. Russia is Al Capone’s Chicago of computer crime. It can be argued that the current government is nearly indistinguishable from the former group, so there does not seem to be any pressure within Russia for reform.

Since the entire capitalist economic system relies on digital information, it will oppose these attacks with all its power. Until Russia polices its domestic malware writers, a cat-and-mouse game between U.S. and European businesses and Russian thieves will continue at great cost.

The U.S. has awakened to these threats and has recently announced a series of high-level policy and organizational shifts to counter cyberwarfare. Tens of thousands of scientists are expected to go to work on the effort. Think Manhattan Project. The U.S. simply cannot afford to have its power nullified by an attack on its electrical grid, military communications or commercial infrastructure. Any of these, if successful, would make 9/11 look insignificant.

This brings us to Israel and the thesis of this blog. Israel is to computer programs what Switzerland is to banking. Israel’s highly developed code writers, programmers and computer scientists are the best in class. For whatever reason, the Israeli mind has met, accepted and embraced the digital world. With the addition of the former Soviet Union computer-scientist émigrés, Israel’s software innovations have been endless. Israel also has the political and economic climate to develop what the marketplace needs. All this makes Israel far less reliant on what is happening with the Arab Spring. What Quantico needs is far more important that what Amman or Gaza City does.

Pick the area—artificial intelligence, data mining, social networking, video transmission, encrypted communications—Israeli scientists lead the field. Not a week goes by without the announcement of an acquisition of Israeli computational expertise by companies around the world. Most of the high-level military collaboration is top secret; we will only know about it years later.

That said, Israel will soon have to choose. There is going to be a hardening of the cyber-development world along political lines. Individual scientists, specific computer companies and whole industry groups are going to have to declare whether they are with the U.S. or China—China also being the supplier of Iran and every other enemy of both the U.S. and Israel. Whatever goes into China does not stay there. If they have not already the U.S. soon will ask Israel to restrict all software technology to certified allies. The stakes are too high not to. The New York Times article today is the digital equivalent of Pearl Harbor. China has gone digital rogue.

Israel in the cyberwarfare arena will now have the same leverage as the Spice Islanders, the Florentine bankers and the citizens of Hong Kong had. An interesting future indeed.

About the Author
Jonathan Russo has been observing Israel and its policies since he first visited in 1966. He is a businessman in New York City.