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Israeli officers learn to fight cyber-war

Algorithms and software become weapons of choice

by Linda Gradstein, The Media Line

August 20, 2014 | 5:58 pm

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Galit tosses her dark braid over her shoulder and smiles. “I’m a lieutenant in Israeli intelligence and I work as a software engineer developing information systems,” the 24-year old soldier told The Media Line.

Because of army regulations her last name cannot be published, nor could she be photographed. Galit was accompanied to the interview by four representatives of the army spokesman’s office, who came to make sure she does not reveal any classified details of her work in the army.

Galit recently earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science, earned during her army service. Drafted at 18 as are all Israelis, she chose to become an officer which required a commitment of serving several additional years in the army. Today Galit is considering an army career.

“The BA enriched my knowledge in different subjects like sophisticated algorithms that I can use in the army,” she said amid warning glances from the army spokesman’s representatives.

Galit received her degree last year from the school of computer science at the College of Management Academic Studies (COMAS), Israel’s first non-subsidized, not-for-profit academic institution and Israel’s largest college. The college also has the largest school of computer science in Israel, with a current enrollment of 1,200 students. One of the main areas of study at the school is cyber-warfare.

“We don’t talk about it but there are millions of cyber attacks every single day,” Samuel Itzikowitz, dean of the computer science department, told The Media Line. “It doesn’t have to be Iran. It could be Hamas, or any other enemy. They are trying to hit the government offices, the police department, and the fire department. They are doing it every day.”

Itzikowitz says one of the ways that Israel can defend itself is by attacking – and cites “media reports” that an Israeli-made computer virus called Stuxnet infected Iran’s computers several years ago.

As Galit demonstrates, The College of Management Academic Studies maintains close ties with the Israeli army. Some, like Galit, do their degrees while they are performing active army service. There is also a program for gifted high school students who study at the college while they are still in high school. These select pupils delay their army service by one year in order complete their bachelor’s degree at the college, entering the army with a BA in computer science already in-hand.

“I’m very intrigued by the subject of cyber-warfare,” Ariel Tzentner, 17, told The Media Line. “I think the biggest advantage of coming with a degree is having knowledge and experience. Most people finish high school with a limited scope of knowledge. When they are drafted, they don’t know as much as we learn here. We learn a bunch of things that help us do our service much better.”

Tuition to COMAS is about $8,500 a year, almost double the tuition at public universities. But many students receive significant scholarships, either from the army or from the municipality of Rishon Letzion.

Students here say they also get practical experience and support from the professors. Shaked Aviv, 24, is finishing her BA at COMAS and is about to begin work toward a Masters degree. She and a few fellow students have come up with an app called “Homemate” to allow people to make rent payments by credit card. Currently, Israeli rent payments are made by check or direct bank deposit.

“I think it is time for this kind of payment by credit card,” Aviv told The Media Line. “You can even give wedding presents by credit card. It will definitely happen, and I hope it will happen with our app.”

The college says it has about 12,000 students currently enrolled and more than 40,000 graduates. Itzikowitz says the close ties to the army are partly personal. In 2000, three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped and killed by the Lebanon-based Hizbullah terrorist organization while on the Israeli side of the border. Itzikowitz’s son, then a commander in the army, was sharing the leadership with one of the kidnapped soldiers, Benny Avraham. Itzikowitz says he wanted to help the army as much as he could.

It is common to see Israelis in army uniforms walking the halls of campus. Nadav Baraket, 24, is a commander in the technology branch of the army, C4I, responsible for maintaining part of the army’s vast network of computers.

“My soldiers learn how to maintain PC’s, servers and storage units,” Barket told The Media Line. “We take everything that exists in the industry and adapt it for use in the army.”

It is not unheard of for students to create a start-up company even before graduating. Itay Tevet, a graduating third-year student, is already taking his final project, Flow, to the market.

“Flow is a tool for programmers to make their lives easier and faster,” Tevet told The Media Line. “When you use Flow inside your development environment, it makes applications and websites faster.”

Tevet has already started putting together funding for his project and hopes that Flow will soon become a commercial success.

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