Israeli Teens and Cyber-education

As is often the case with technology, high-school age students are at the forefront of both knowledge and curiosity in the field of cyberspace. More than a few exceed their elders in computer skills and cyber abilities.

Cyberspace, that infinite gulf of technology with no end and no beginning, presents a key problem for today's Israel. And according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke at a press conference to mark the third year of his current term in the premiership's chair, it is both a potential security threat as well as a tempting economic opportunity.

"Cyber" is the popularly used term for the cybernetic space that surrounds us, at the center of which is the Internet. For the most part we hear the term "cyber" knocked about while referring to the threat of Internet-based terror attacks. Israelis are well-versed in hack attacks, having weathered the siege of local credit card companies, as well as the websites of the Bank of Israel and Tel Aviv City Hall.

These hacks resulted in tens of thousands of Israelis having their personal details exposed, and Israel has long been aware of the threat. As far as we know, army intelligence and the Shin Bet security service have cyber-warfare units in place specifically to protect Israel and attack its enemies.

But cyberspace doesn't just pose a threat. It also presents an opportunity. Consumers' increasing use of the Internet gives endless possibilities for scientific, technological and business development. Global competition and the success of companies like Google and Facebook have turned cyberspace into a flourishing industry.

As is often the case with technology, high-school age students are at the forefront of both knowledge and curiosity in the field of cyberspace. More than a few exceed their elders in computer skills and cyber abilities.

Even while very young, today's youth are developing cutting-edge skills that should be encouraged and nurtured well before they reach the age of military conscription or university studies.

The government's plan for cyberspace stands on three pillars: academic, business and defense. With respect to academia, they are aiming for increased investment in research and development, to be used for establishing centers of cyber-excellence, as well as a center for supercomputing at one of the country's universities. That center would in turn, upgrade the research infrastructure at local universities. There are also efforts to reverse the Israeli brain drain abroad and increase the number of students in cyber-related fields.

In the realm of business, high-tech companies will get incentives to export software and other cyber products. And when it comes to defense, the government is going to mine its defense fields for technologies that can be harnessed for industry.

All of these are worthy plans. They deserve to be put into action, and they should be augmented by programs that mine the potential of high school students. Such a move will tap our vast wealth of young talent and solidify Israel's standing in the cyber arena.

The vast potential that exists among Israel's teens is obvious from the very first program of this type, in which high school students study cyber-related subjects and conduct computer-based simulations to hone their cyber skills.

Cybernetics education is also becoming increasingly relevant in relation to the present economic reality. Recently, NIS 1.4 billion that had been earmarked for cyber education and topics was pulled after a restructuring of the annual government budget. In the end, the government will provide only some tens of millions of shekels for cyber preparedness programs. Even the planned budget for cyber defense was frozen.

Budgeting ambiguity, therefore, necessitates the construction of a long-term infrastructure for high school cyber studies that will be separate from regular budget considerations, free of politics and constructed as part of the educational system's set curriculum.

It is time to spin our youth's addiction to the Internet into an educational tool, both challenging and empowering, that also provides its own financial return. If we succeed in training high school students for cyberspace, we will strengthen national preparedness for the strategic challenges looming before us. We will also push Israel's qualitative and economic advantage as the Silicon Valley of the Middle East straight into a brighter, more secure future.

The writer is senior deputy director-general and chief administrator of R&D and training at ORT Israel, a leading educational network of high schools that have an emphasis on science and technology.