Battle Move in Israel's Cyber Turf War: Shin Bet Loses Authority Over 'Civilian Space'

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks into the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday that a new government authority would be established to protect the "civilian space" in Israel from cyber-attacks, rejecting the recommendations of the Shin Bet security services to leave the subject in its hands. 

The decision to create an "authority for operative defense against cyber" comes after nearly a year's delay and adopts the opinion of the National Cyber Bureau in the Prime Minister's Office. In its announcement, the PMO said that Netanyahu has instructed NCB Director Eviatar Matania to take steps to establish it the new authority, which will bear complete responsibility and authority for defending the civilian space from cyber threats. The authority will operate alongside the National Cyber Bureau.

Netanyahu told Matania to bring the plan for the new authority within 60 days, for approval by the political-security cabinet. "The establishment of the new authority will be carried out in accordance with a multi-year plan and in cooperation with the relevant bodies," the PMO said in its announcement, hinting at the substantial opposition to the move from within the Shin Bet and other organizations in the defense establishment.

Netanyahu told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem that the new authority would protect not only Israeli security organizations and critical facilities and infrastructure, a task already undertaken by the Shin Bet, but would focus on protecting civilian space, as well - in other words, the major public and private corporations.

"This step is the equivalent of establishing a new air force to deal with new threats, rather than expecting existing bodies from dealing with these," said Netanyahu. "We're in a new world and we are organizing with new forces."

The Shin Bet and the National Cyber Bureau in the PMO have been waging a major battle of late over the authority and responsibility for protecting Israel's economy and civilian space from computer attacks. Senior officials noted the need to determine who would be responsible for protecting large private companies such as Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, food conglomerate Osem and El Al Israel Airlines. Because these firms are not defined as critical civilian industries, they are not under Shin Bet protection, but damage to them could severely hurt the Israeli economy.

Senior officials who are closely involved in the issue characterize the turf war between the two groups in the past year as one filled with passion, mudslinging, interests and politicking, all of under the radar of defense officials. In the balance is not only prestige and influence on the "sexiest" security issues and most important to the prime minister, but fat budgets as well.

Netanyahu has taken on the cyber issue as a personal project, defining such attacks as "one of the four main threats to Israel." But he has held up the final decision over responsibilities for nearly a year. In the past year he received at least five different opinion papers on the topic – from the NCB, the Shin Bet, former National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror, current National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen and a team headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Ben Israel, who is considered one of Israel's top experts in the field.
In a position paper, NCB director Matania and his staff recommended establishing a new state security agency directly responsible to him and argued that the proposed organization was necessary to avoid a situation in which the Shin Bet was involved in the computer systems of civilian firms.

The Shin Bet opposed the idea, and in a position paper of its own explained to Netanyahu that fighting cyber attacks required not only virtual walls but also measures such as those used to prevent terror attacks. The security service argued that action against hackers should be taken in the early organization and planning stages, rather than waiting for an attack and hoping that the security measures were strong enough. The Shin Bet claimed that the NCB is unable to carry out this task because it lacks intelligence-gathering capabilities, has no operational tradition of deterrence and no possibility of integration with similar security organizations worldwide.

Former National Security Adviser Amidror advised Netanyahu to adopt the NCB’s position and set up a new state agency to counter computer attacks. Amidror’s successor, Yossi Cohen, submitted a proposal that was diametrically opposed and called for adopting the Shin Bet recommendations in full rather than creating a new authority. Ben-Israel's team, which included representatives from all the relevant institutions, recommended adopting the NCB’s position and creating a new cyber agency under its aegis.

Netanyahu convened a discussion with all the relevant groups last Thursday, at which point  he made the decision.