Malicious Life Podcast: The Bloody Origins of Israel's Cybersecurity Industry

Israel is a small country, yet its cybersecurity industry is exceptionally successful. In this episode, we go back to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 to discover how a national trauma and an intelligence failure paved the way for Israel to become a cybersecurity mini-empire - check it out…


About the Host

Ran Levi

Born in Israel in 1975, Malicious Life Podcast host Ran studied Electrical Engineering at the Technion Institute of Technology, and worked as an electronics engineer and programmer for several High Tech companies in Israel.

In 2007, created the popular Israeli podcast Making History. He is author of three books (all in Hebrew): Perpetuum Mobile: About the history of Perpetual Motion Machines; The Little University of Science: A book about all of Science (well, the important bits, anyway) in bite-sized chunks; Battle of Minds: About the history of computer malware.

About The Malicious Life Podcast

Malicious Life by Cybereason exposes the human and financial powers operating under the surface that make cybercrime what it is today. Malicious Life explores the people and the stories behind the cybersecurity industry and its evolution. Host Ran Levi interviews hackers and industry experts, discussing the hacking culture of the 1970s and 80s, the subsequent rise of viruses in the 1990s and today’s advanced cyber threats.

Malicious Life theme music: ‘Circuits’ by TKMusic, licensed under Creative Commons License. Malicious Life podcast is sponsored and produced by Cybereason. Subscribe and listen on your favorite platform:

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Israel is a small country: from anywhere in it, you’re only just about half an hour from the nearest border. It’s also small in terms of population: with roughly 9 million people, it’s even smaller than cities like London, Bangkok and Tehran. 

Yet in spite of it’s modest size, Israel is a global tech hub. Over the years, it gave birth to many important technological innovations like ICQ, the first global instant messaging service, the first USB disk-on-key storage devices in the early 2000’s, and Waze and Whatsapp in more recent years. Many leading global technology companies – from Intel to Microsoft to Google – have major innovation centers in various cities around the country. 

How did such a small country become a technology powerhouse? It’s a question that intrigued quite a few researchers and authors over the years. One key factor is a highly educated and skilled workforce. According to a Delottile, a major consulting and accounting firm – 

“Israel enjoys the highest percentage of engineers and scientists per capita in the world, and one of the highest ratios of university degrees and academic publications per capita.”

Another important contribution was a strategic decision by Israeli government in the early 1990’s to invest heavily in Technology Incubator programs, which according to Deloitte led to more than 1100 new projects and companies over the years. 

A Mini-Empire

Israel’s booming cyber security industry is a particularly fascinating part of this overall success. Israeli private companies like Check Point, CyberArk and Cybereason – our show’s sponsors – are widely regarded as industry leaders. The cyber operations of the Israeli Mossad are whispered throughout the globe, while The IDF – Israeli Defence Forces – 8200 unit is a world-renowned school for offensive cyber operations. Even rogue companies like NSO are considered to be unrivalled in their shady operations.

That success is partly due to the reasons I already mentioned – funding and education. Another important reason is the constant threat Israel was under from it’s many adversaries over the years, most recently Iran. Here’s what Professor Isaac Ben Israel, who led Israel’s National Cyber Initiative, wrote about the subject in a Forbes article:

“It soon became clear that the ability to use cyber as a weapon, in the military arena, is not so simple, and it is actually easier to hit computers of civilian systems.  This observation has led Israel’s defense security designers to understand that Israel, being the most computerized country in the Middle East, is potentially very vulnerable to such an attack. This understanding […] led the Israeli government in 2002, to establish a new body – the Information Security Authority – in order to oversee and protect critical infrastructure, such as power production facilities, water supply systems and the like.  This is how Israel became the first country in the world (20 years ago) to be prepared for a future cyber war.”

One factor that contributed to the development of the cyber security sector in Israel, rarely discussed in the context of technology innovation, is the Yom Kippur War. A terrible and bloody war, The Yom Kippur War not only helped shape the fate of the Middle East conflict – but also set the foundations of a cyber security empire.

A Terrible Sound

Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Once the sun sets down on the eve of this special holiday, the state of Israel suddenly quiets down. You cannot find a single car on the roads – and for one day, they become a playground for children with bicycles. Observant Jews gather in synagogues, and many Israelis – even less observant ones – commit to 24 hours of fasting, as a symbol of introspection and a solemn dialogue with God. It is an annual judgement day – in which, according to tradition, God decides who will live and who will die. The Jewish tradition says that on Yom Kippur, the gates of heaven are opening up – and God reveals himself to his followers.

On Yom Kippur of 1973, October 6th, the gates of heaven opened up – and a terrible sound emerged. These were air raid sirens – signalling the outbreak of war. Syrian tanks breached the northern border of the Golan Heights, while simultaneously, Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal in the south and invaded the Sinai Peninsula. For the first time since the formation of the young country in 1948 – Israel seemed on the verge of annihilation. Fasting, hungry, reserve soldiers were suddenly called into service. The empty roads became filled with tanks, armoured vehicles and army trucks. No one saw this coming – but almost immediately, Israel was caught up in one of its most bloody, dangerous and traumatic wars. 

The name of our guest today is still a state secret in Israel. He is an aging man, a high-ranking Colonel long since retired from the Israeli Defence Forces – but because he was exposed to some of the most confidential military technologies during his service, he is still considered a lucrative target in the eyes of Israel’s enemies. In this episode, we shall call him M. 

The war caught M as a young officer. Almost 50 years later, he can still recall those fateful moments in October 1973:

“[M]The war breaking out was a shock for everyone in Israel. It was a surprise. So the war breakout was a shock. It’s a different world than the Six-Day War that was a short one initiated by Israel. Then we have been totally surprised. It’s the opposite and the six days war”.

That surprise was due to a dire failure by the IDF’s Intelligence research department. Six years prior, Israel had won a great victory against Syria, Egypt and Jordan in what came to be known as the Six Day War of 1967. That truly exceptional success convinced many in Israel that Syria and Egypt would not dare initiate a new war so soon after the previous one, thus creating a false sense of security. 

But the Intelligence analysts were wrong. They failed to realise that the both Arab nations were determined to avenge the humiliating defeat in 1967, and regain the territories they lost. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, in a carefully planned strategic move, set a surprise attack – and deliberately chose Yom Kippur as the beginning of the war.

“[M] And then 73 arrived. I was just married with a small kid eight, nine months, living in Beer Sheba. The Yom Kippur War was a Saturday, it was the 6th of October. We knew that something was going in. October 6th. Two o’clock in the afternoon, Yom Kippur, which is the most holy day for the Jewish people, the war started. You take your large bag and you say hello to your wife, you kiss your small kid – and you go out and you say okay, see you sometime. And you go out – and I went out”.

As the Egyptian and Syrian armies made substantial advances across the border on the first days of the war, and the IDF suffered many casualties – fear and confusion engulfed Israel. 

“[M] Well, nobody knew what’s really the situation. Nobody knew what going gone really. What is the size of the surprise? What happens with the guys that are sitting in the bunkers on the Suez Canal? What’s happening in the heights of the Golan and so on? People went out because it was absolutely clear that it is emergency. In emergency you fight for your country, you’ll fight for your life, you fight for families and that’s a survival war.”

Soviet Technology

The 1967 Six Day War, in which Egypt and Syria suffered a bitter defeat, also reflected badly on the Soviet Union. Both countries were allies of the Soviet Union, and their armies were using mostly Soviet-made equipment, from jet planes to artillery cannons. Following the unsuccessful war, Arab officers claimed that Soviet technology was inferior to the Western technology employed by the Israeli forces – so the Russians, determined to prove these claims wrong, supplied the two armies with their latest technology, including advanced intelligence gathering and radio jamming systems. 

“[M] Very quick, we learned from information that came from the field, as actually the Egyptians and Syrians do have quite good capabilities of signal intelligence, like our 8200 unit and good electronic warfare capabilities. And they used this quite effectively at the first days of the war in the Heights of the Golan and in the south”.

The Soviet Union was especially proficient in jamming radio communications. In fact, the Russian army is credited with the very first attempt at jamming radio signals, during the 1904 Russo-Japanese war in the Pacific ocean, during the Japanese siege of Port Arthur, in Manchuria. 

Later on, radio jamming became a crucial part of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. The conflict between the two superpowers was deeply ideological, with both sides employing propaganda to try and convince the citizens of their rival that their own ideology – Communism or Capitalism – was superior. For that purpose, the USA and its European allies set up powerful radio transmitters, and broadcasted western music, entertainment shows and news deep into Soviet held territories.  Soviet engineers developed sophisticated radio jamming technology in order to block these transmissions. 

Electronic Warfare

When the 1973 war began, the Israeli forces came to the frightening conclusion that their Egyptian and Syrian foes had mastered the art of electronic warfare. Using advanced Soviet-made systems, the Egyptian and Syrian armies managed to jam radio communications between the various Israeli units in the Yom Kippur War. M was an engineer with the Electronic Warfare unit in the Israeli Army. 

“[M] I was called to the commander, the chief commander of the Signal Corps, General Sholomo Inbar, and then had a discussion with some of the intelligence guys. And they said, we must find out what’s going on. We knew the locations, but we didn’t know exactly the capabilities, because that was the first time that they activated a massive warfare attack in the spectrum. So they said we need a person that will be the project leader. And they didn’t ask me, they said, okay, you’re the guy and you have one job. You will get a team of people, mix people from intelligence signal, speaking Arabic, speaking Egyptian Arabic, speaking Syrian Arabic, and you will have all the support you need from operational units, you’ll have to go and get every piece of information and documentation and equipment that you can in the South Zone area, in Sinai, and in Syria, in the Heights of the Golan.”

M and his team were sent on a mission: to study the electronic warfare capabilities of the enemy forces. 

Radio Jamming

Broadly defined, Electronic Warfare is the use of the electromagnetic spectrum to attack an enemy, or impede enemy assaults. Radio waves have many uses in modern warfare – from Radar long-range detection systems to wireless communications – and thus Electronic Warfare has gradually gained in importance from its early roots in World War II. 

Radio Jamming is a subset of Electronic Warfare. Since much of the communication between different units, platoons and brigades take place in the electromagnetic spectrum – the ability to thwart it could prove highly powerful. A Disruption of communications on the battlefield subverts the enemy’s ability to coordinate its efforts, enhances the well known Fog Of War, and sows fear and confusion among the troops. 

So how can you jam and disrupt radio communications? Here’s a quick refresher. 

Wireless communication requires a transmitter at one end, to send out radio waves, and a receiver at the other end to receive and decode them. Crucially, both sides need to be tuned to the same frequency, much like a car radio needs to be tuned to a particular FM radio station’s frequency – else all you’ll hear will be static noises. These noises are perpetually present on all frequencies: they are caused by random radio emissions from both natural sources – such as the Sun and even the Bing Bang – and artificial sources, such as other radio transmitters. 

To be received properly by the receiving side, the transmitted radio waves need to be “louder” than the surrounding noise. If the noise overpowers the incoming signal, then the receiver will not be able to detect it – much like two people trying to carry a conversation during a loud rock concert. This simple fact is the basis for all radio jamming: disrupting the wireless communication by drowning the enemy’s signals in artificially created noise. 

But there’s a catch. Wireless communication requires, as we noted, that both the transmitting and receiving sides be tuned to the same frequency – and that’s also true for whoever is trying to disrupt this communication. If the jammer is transmitting noise on a frequency different from that used by the transmitter and receiver – it will have no effect at all. It’s like trying to disrupt a voice conversation between two people using a dog whistle: you can blow the whistle until your face turns red – but all you’ll be doing is annoying nearby dogs. The humans in question can’t hear the high-frequency whistle – and similarly, the radio receiver will ignore any generated noise on a frequency it’s not tuned to. 

One obvious solution, for the attacker, is to transmit noise on ALL frequencies – thus ensuring that no matter what frequency the defending side is using, its signals will be overpowered by the noise. But alas, that solution is also impractical: transmitting radio waves requires energy, and the more frequencies you want to transmit on – the more energy is required. Building huge and powerful transmitters is never an easy feat – and bear in mind that in a combat environment, these transmitters will almost always need to be mobile, to be able to respond to the changing conditions on the battlefield. Combine that with the fact that the transmitted noise – same as every other radio signal – gets weaker and weaker the further away it is from its source, and the bottom line is that the attacker is basically forced to choose what frequencies he wishes to jam in the first place. 

Keeping this constraint in mind, we can now talk about the different methods of jamming. The most basic one is spot jamming – which uses the entire capacity of the jammer against one frequency. Basically, this is a brute force approach: identify the specific frequency your foe is using and then unleash your full power against it.

Given the fact that the enemy can often switch between frequencies – sometimes you have to block more than one frequency. This calls for barrage jamming – in which several frequencies are hit at the same time. Barrage jamming requires much more energy than spot jamming– but when given enough power, it can cause more damage.

A more sophisticated version of this technique is sweep jamming – in which a jammer quickly alters between jamming several different frequencies. Although none of them are jammed completely – it could render several frequencies useless. Let’s say a jammer switches between four different frequencies every 250 milliseconds. Although 75 percent of the signal in each frequency will get through – it will lack essential bits of information. How can you understand an audio message, for example, where one quarter of the vowels are missing? Sweep jamming is useful when you don’t know the exact frequency your enemy is using – or when the other side is switching between a number of frequencies.

Of course, these three methods are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Electronic Warfare: nowadays, there are many more sophisticated jamming techniques used by modern armies, especially when it comes to digital communications – as opposed to the voice-only, analog radio transmissions used in the 1970’s. 

Nowadays, communication systems can regularly and randomly change their frequencies – in order to disrupt jammers. But this technology wasn’t utilised in 1973 – when frequency changes had to be done manually.

“[M] We didn’t have technical equipment to deal with anti-jamming at those days. And we didn’t have enough prior information on the capabilities of their jammers. We knew that [they are listening] but active jamming we didn’t know.”.

M’s first goal in the Yom Kippur war, then, was to find out what is the range of frequencies that the Egyptians and Syrains can jam, using the Russian equipment. 

“[M] We captured people, including officers, including commanders of electronic warfare units of Egyptian, ones that we questioned a lot. And we have tons of documentation, tons of tape recorders that they recorded our activities, and the result of that was a big thing.”

Shortly afterwards, M made an important discovery.

“[M] When we got few equipment’s, we learned that they are limited in the frequency range. Frequencies above 60, they cannot jam because they don’t have the equipment. We discovered it during the battles. So the first thing we did is we moved the most critical frequencies of the Israeli Defense Forces to frequencies which are above 60, which means they couldn’t jam. That was done during the war.”

Over the next few weeks, the tide of war started to turn in Israel’s favor. In the Southern front and with great effort, Israeli tanks started pushing the Egyptian forces across the Suez Canal. 

At that point, the Israeli commanders had a tough choice to make. The Egyptian forces, too, were using wireless communications – and Israeli Intelligence was covertly listening to these channels and gathering important information. M’s Electronic Warfare unit could jam these wireless channels – but that, in turn, will also hamper the intelligence gathering effort. What should they do? 

“[M] One of the key factors was to create kind of chaotic environment in the Third Egyptian Army. how do you create a chaotic environment? You cause the people kind of fear not because you bumped them and so on, because you just disconnect the communications. The same guy that was the chief analyst for the signal intelligence in Sinai, understood it and he submitted to the officers to the electronic warfare unit, the southern one, the frequencies not only of the regular command communication, intelligence nets, operational nets, artillery air force, but also what so-called radiotelephone. Now this is critical. Radiotelephone, you treat like a regular telephone besides the fact that what you do is it’s transmitted in wireless. But basically, you speak through  a  telephone. So you believe that you’re on a telephone but actually are going out, what does it mean? It means that you let yourself talk in a more classified information’s that you will do in a regular radio. Okay, that’s what you do. So he gave our officers that have been nearby his place, the frequencies of the radiotelephones of the Second Army, but lots of frequencies of radiotelephone of this third Army of the Egyptians. And he said, okay, at this point of time, it’s more important not to let them have any communication, not internally, not between the Second Army and not to Cairo, just to create a total confusion.”

Ultimately, IDF forces managed to cross the canal and bring the battle back to Egyption territory. In doing so, they completely encircled Egypt’s Third Army: a huge fighting force with some 30,000 soldiers and more than 300 tanks. 

Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State, saw this encirclement as an opportunity – forcing Egypt to agree to a cease fire if it wants to save its trapped forces. One key element of his plan was the continuous disruption of communications between the trapped army and the Egyptian leadership in Cairo. 

“[M] the person who really negotiated the ceasefire agreement on behalf of the US, and was coordinating with the others was Henry Kissinger. And Kissinger was the foreign minister of United States, and [he] negotiated in goodwill with the Egyptian and whatever supported the Egyptians. His interest was not to let down the pressure from the Third Army. He believed, it was his belief that the more pressure the Third Army will feel the Egyptians will be flexible in agreeing to a ceasefire.”

Kissinger was proven right: as the surrounded Third Army was faced with dwindling supplies, Egypt had no choice but to agree to a ceasefire. 

M’s final contribution to the war effort was made on the Northern front. After the Israeli forces managed to break the advance of the Syrian tanks in the Golan Heights, they pushed them back across the border and were now advancing themselves towards Damascus, the Syrian capital. The now-defending Syrians started pummeling the Israeli forces with heavy artillery fire. 

“[M] The Israeli units after the 22nd or 24th of October when they have been into the inside region, 70 kilometers from Damascus, suffered heavily from the Syrian artillery. Heavily, heavily, heavily, because you’re exposed, you just go stop and you’re exposed. And a lot of efforts have been to try to locate that. And the other factor, which is a very critical one, that when you look at the topographic situation map you’re rising here tons of memories of you know, complexity of what you look, there are some so-called “mountains” [hills] where there have been relatively high and there have been excellent places that you can put forward observers that can direct the fire very effective and they have directed the fire extremely effectively. Actually, it didn’t let any moment of rest to the Israeli forces, although we have been inside threatening Damascus but that was a nightmare of that area. So the decision was made to try to block the forward observer from directing the fire as much as possible. And together with the information that came from the signal intelligence and our units, I mean, the electronic warfare was extremely effective and actually, it’s documented in an original message that was sent by the chief analyzer of that unit in the North saying, wow, I mean, those guys, the electronic warfare is extremely effective against the forward observer and not letting the artillery or the Syrian to be effective. So that just shows what you can do if you really operate effectively.”

Lessons Learned

Despite major victories later in the war, the Yom Kippur war is considered a traumatic failure of the Israeli Army – and especially the Intelligence Corps. As I stated earlier in the episode, the Israeli intelligence community was certain that Egypt and Syria did not seek a new conflict. 2,656 Israeli soldiers paid for that mistake with their lives. 

That is why after the war, Israel began studying structural failures in the Intelligence Corps and in other parts of the military. 

One important lesson learned in the aftermath of the war was the need to independently develop military technology in Israel.

“[M] Lessons from their capabilities, Egyptian and Syrian capabilities was that we need to be ready for anti-jamming capabilities, and develop the technologies and we need to start to look at the next generations of communications that will be much more sophisticated than would have been and that was okay, it should be Israeli developed.

I think that the second one was the key lessons that have been they key decisions, the lessons that have been made was, the development in Israel, in the defense industries and not going [abroad if] you need an airplane or whatever, but a lot of stuff to be developed, designed by Israel, what you can develop, develop in Israel, by Israelis. And for many, many years, actually, that’s what happened.”

The country decided to take the lead in the technological armament race. In 1988, Israel devoted more than 17 percent of its GDP to military expenditure, compared to roughly 6% in the US at that same year. That share dropped in later years, but it is still considered relatively high in comparison to the rest of the world. 

Moreover, Israel also started giving a special emphasis on training young soldiers in engineering and computing. M himself was sent to the university on the military’s expenses – where he studied engineering. Nowadays, the Israeli Defence Forces and especially its Intelligence corps, serve as a kind of a “production line” for engineers, releasing hundreds of new cyber security specialists to the civilian market each year.

The Yom Kippur War also accelerated a process which was already underway before 1973, and even before 1967’s Six Day War, which was the increased awareness to the importance of having varied sources of Intelligence information and analysis. That is why when, in the early 1980’s, as computer technology started replacing more traditional, mechanical-based military technologies, the IDF decided to place heavy emphasis on offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. Today, Unit 8200 is the largest unit in the IDF, and the dedicated training process its members go through– and the obviously rare and extensive hands-on experience gained during the compulsory military service in Israel – helps to turn these young soldiers into trained experts.

“[M] There have been a lot of lessons that generated tons of ideas: technically, operationally, intelligence, electronic warfare, communications, and so on, that enabled a lot of very creative and very innovative I would say, concepts, that have been copied by the world. And no doubt about in my mind, that it’s just a result of the Israeli skills of improvisation, creativity, and being able to take advantage of any situations that you face.”

Forty-eight years later, Israeli cyber and tech companies dominate the tech scene across the globe – with Israel regularly ranked as the number-one nation in terms of R&D investments and start-up companies per capita. It is sometimes easy to forget that this cyber security mini-empire was born on the battlefield. The lessons learned in the Yom Kippur War – and the brave actions of men and women like M – helped launch the start-up nation.