By Cory Bennett - 03/04/15 06:00 AM EST
Israel is rapidly building an elite team of cyber warriors to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, analysts say.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is waging a public campaign against the diplomatic talks over Iran’s nuclear program, he is also preparing his country for a new battle in the shadows of cyberspace.
“The prime minister views cyber as … the front line,” said Elie Jacobs, an Israeli policy expert and fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
Israel’s recruitment of online warriors starts early, with students put onto cyber tracks starting in grade school.
After high school, when Israelis are conscripted for military service, the nation’s elite intelligence agencies choose “very bright 18-year-olds and teach them not just cybersecurity but everything,” said Adam Fisher, an Israeli-based venture capitalist who has managed investments in over 20 Israeli cyber firms over the years.
Being selected for the cyber teams, especially Unit 8200 within the Israel Defense Forces, is “a great honor,” said Fisher, a partner with Bessemer Venture Partners.
As a result of the military’s efforts, Israel — a country of just over 8 million people, or roughly the population of New York City — has turned itself into a top-four offensive cyber power in the world, Kellermann said.
The focus of their new military unit is unquestionably Iran.
The Israeli military collects information on the layout of Iran’s nuclear program, works to dismantle Iran’s Internet restrictions and tries to enable the flow of information to dissenters in the country, Kellermann said.
Israel has also infiltrated Iran’s infrastructure with dormant “disruptive capabilities” that could be activated at any time, Kellermann said.
Iran has responded to threats by stepping up its own cyber efforts.
Tehran has formed a Supreme Council of Cyberspace that includes President Hassan Rouhani and meets once a month, and has sought to increase partnerships with Russia on cybersecurity research.
The initiative appears to be paying dividends. A December report found Iran had compromised the critical infrastructure of over a dozen countries, including the United States.
Analysts say the rising cyber activities of Israel and Iran is creating an arms race for the Internet age — an “escalating cold war of cyber,” as Kellermann called it.
Last summer, Iran pelted Israel with a barrage of cyberattacks “every day,” Jacobs said.
Reportedly, the attacks targeted Israel’s electrical and communications networks. Israeli officials said the cyber campaign was unprecedented in its scale and severity.
“The cyber field is increasingly becoming a battlefield,” Netanyahu said at a September cybersecurity conference.
For years, the U.S. has joined Israel on that battlefield to attack Iran’s nuclear program.
In 2006, it’s widely believed that the two countries launched a joint cyber campaign, known as Operation Olympic Games, with the intent of disrupting Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The operation culminated in the 2010 Stuxnet cyberattack, a seminal offensive cyber campaign that destroyed a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.
Jacobs said Stuxnet might have been a U.S. attempt to show Israel that “there was another option” to stalling Tehran’s nuclear efforts that didn’t involve bombing campaigns.
“The feeling was that, if we could convince the Israelis this is a viable option, maybe this could buy us time” to negotiate, Jacobs said.
Since then, relations between President Obama and Netanyahu have soured, with Obama launching a round of diplomatic talks with Iran that the Israeli leader has labeled a “historic mistake.”
But experts said the tensions between Netanyahu and Obama over the nuclear talks do not necessarily extend to cybersecurity.
“It’s no secret that most of high tech in Israel is center and left of center, not to mention the top commanders in the military,” Bessemer’s Fisher said. “I have no doubt that the political tension is more of an embarrassment than it is really worrying.”
It remains to be seen what role the United States might play in a cyber campaign against Iran if the nuclear talks end in failure.
After the Israeli leader’s speech to Congress Tuesday, Rep. Peter WelchPeter WelchOvernight Defense: Senate panel approves 2B defense bill Lawmakers push for ISIS war measure in defense bill Lawmakers urge Obama not to send shoulder-fired missiles to Syria MORE (D-Vt.), tweeted: “What is his Plan B to negotiations? Military intervention? If so, he should say so, if not, what?”
Some speculate a cyber campaign similar to Operation Olympic Games could be that alternative.
“That may be at play now,” Jacobs said.