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Meet an Israeli Hacker

Israel is cyber security powerhouse. This snippet, I interviewed a hot Israeli hacker who not only looks like Herzl but fulfilled his vision.

* Photo credit: Ofir Abe

At an early stage in the development of the Internet and global connectivity, Israel identified cybersecurity as an area of national importance. The unrelenting need for security combined with Israel’s technological smarts made cybersecurity a natural focus for national investment.

Israel is acknowledged as a pioneer in both the global development of cybersecurity solutions, as well as the design of revolutionary cyber policies.

Israel exports more cybersecurity related products and services than all other countries in the world combined, excluding the US. Reports show that Israel makes 10% of all global sales in cyber security products and attracts 20% of global investment in the sector.

When I facilitate trips in Israel, I try to put a strong emphasis on meeting the people. It's not that hard, Israelis generally are very chatty, some would even say too chatty. Yonatan is a new friend of mine from the neighborhood. We tend to sit around bonfires, eat good food, and talk about life and emotions. Yonatan is a real catch: tall, very confident, a listener, and brilliant yet humble.

He also looks a lot like Herzl, except Herzl was quite short. Herzl is a profound example of someone who did not take "no" as an answer. Herzl was creative, curious, and determined to form a solution for the Jewish people at the beginning of the 20th century. Yonatan is a profound realization of what Herzl envisioned of the new Jews in an old-new land.

Yonatan was born in Jerusalem, to a religious (knitted kippa) family. One morning, sometime during his early adulthood, he just stopped putting on Tefilin, and that is the day he recalls as the final transition to being a secular Jew. At the age of 18, he joined the Israeli Defense Force and served in a special commando unit of the Golani brigade. After he was discharged from the army, like many Israelis, he went traveling for a significant period. But Yonatan went to an area less traveled: he used Soviet maps and hiked with a tent on his back along the silk route, from Georgia to China.

In the military reserves, he serves in the Alpinist Unit, the only unit in the army that specializes in snow warfare and difficult terrain warfare in the northern borders.

Below is my interview with Yonatan:

Who are you Yonatan?

I'm a white hat hacker; I use my skills to expose vulnerabilities in the security systems of organizations/companies before black hats exploit them.

Except for that, I love various sports (free-diving, rock-climbing).

I love to explore, to learn new things, to use my mind and body. Nature is a big part of my life.

How did you become a hacker?

I was working in Mexico as a bodyguard of a multi-millionaire in northern Mexico, a dodgy guy who was working in the steel industry.

Back then, I didn't do much, I had a lot of spare time. I told my brother I was bored, and he sent me a book about the C language (programming language). I read the book and got really excited. I started to learn through the internet how to become a hacker. At first, I hacked into my friends’ Facebook accounts. I used tools that I downloaded from the net. I decided I wanted to learn this professionally, so I went to Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva and studied B.Sc. in Information Systems Engineering with specialization in Cyber Space Security.

However, most of the things I studied myself were from the web. Reading, practicing, and thinking. That's how I became a hacker.

What are the characteristics needed to become an excellent hacker?

It is the love of exploring, thinking as if there is no box, being very patient. You want to accomplish something you are not supposed to do.

Its hard work, you need to be an autodidact, investigate, research, read, you need to make things happen the way you want, and not the way others want it.

Another important component is curiosity. You need to get excited from things. You need to be passionate. Curiosity is the most important character of a hacker.

You are not allowed to get desperate, ever. You have to know when to quit. I mean, that sometimes the vulnerable spot of the system is just near you, and not ahead of you. You need to remind yourself all the time, to be open to try new ways.

Where do you work now and what exactly do you guys do?

I work in a startup company called NanoLock, located at a private house on a moshav (like a real startup in its first steps). We create security solutions for IOT devices (smart devices that are connected to the internet), like power and water meters. My job is to investigate and research new devices, to find their weaknesses. Then, implement our security solutions on them and prove that they are not vulnerable anymore.

Tell me about a success story in your career?

I got a device from a famous international company, and their engineers were confident that it isn't hackable. I studied the device for over a month and found a security breach, to an extent that I was able to control the device entirely. They also weren't able to remove my hack.

In the demo display, they were speechless. That moment, I thought to myself how can a boy from a small town screw several top notch engineers of a global famous company.

That was a really rewarding moment for me.

Who is your figure of admiration in the hacking world?

Well, not exactly from the hacking world, but…

I really admire Linus Torvalds, who developed the open-source Linux operating system. I believe his way of thinking is very wise, it allows everyone to see how the system works and to contribute to it in a transparent way. That is wisdom of the crowd, anyone can add a code.

Just recently, two cyber-attacks were carried out against Israeli water infrastructure. The head of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate hinted that the attack might have aimed to mix chlorine or other chemicals into the water supply.

What could be a worse-case-scenario attack against Israel in the future?

Attack attempts against Israel will not stop, but will only become more sophisticated. What I see as a worse case scenario is a complete shutdown of Israel's infrastructure: water, electricity. That means no internet. A country that would suffer from this kind of attack will be entirely paralyzed. The economy will be severely hurt, and it would take months to recover.

If Israel wants to keep raising young intelligent future hackers, what does it need to do?

Thanks to our genetic Hutzpah, we are always on the go and Israel remains an incubator for hackers. Naturally, when Israelis see a well-protected system, they just don't give up. As a nation, a society, the younger generation adopts this attitude. In addition, we have military units like 8200 that are a supportive environment to keep growing.

The education system must continue to teach computer programming and expose kids to this arena from a very young age.

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