An Israeli Cyber Warrior Puts a Scare Into CEOs at Davos

Citigroup's chief and other corporate titans are told to learn from Islamic State in the battle against clever hackers
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

How scared are chief executives about cyber attacks after the incursion into Sony's network? Scared enough that dozens of top brass, including Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat, showed up for a Davos breakfast with an Israeli cybersecurity expert who talked about defending against attackers armed with what he called the digital equivalent of an F-16 fighter jet.

The advice came from Nadav Zafrir, former commander of the Israel Defense Forces' technology and intelligence unit, 8200, and founder of the IDF's Cyber Command. He has since left the IDF and co-founded Team8 Cyber Security Venture Creation, which is raising money to invest in startups. Zafrir looks like the movie version of a counterterrorist and has clearly practiced his shtick:

  • "The breakers in cyber are one step ahead of the makers. ...We're out of equilibrium."
  • Companies have a lot to learn from Islamic State,  Zafrir insisted, particularly about the power of loosely coupled networks of networks in which power is at the edges. "You have to redefine control. You have to let go, and it's scary."
  • "It's too important to leave it to the cyber experts. You [the CEO] have to become cyber literate."
  • If people with guns stormed Davos, he said, the Swiss Army would come to the rescue. But if cyber terrorists attacked some company's installation in Davos, the Swiss government would not be there to help.
  • The bottom line: "In the end of the day you're on your own, and you have to accept that. ... I tell my kids, 'Don't get mad at reality.'"

Zafrir was joined by Avi Hasson, chief scientist of the Israeli Economy Ministry. The session was moderated by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and sponsored by Start-Up Nation Central, which promotes Israeli technology. Aside from Corbat, attendees included James Tisch, president and CEO of Loews; David Rubinstein, co-founder of Carlyle Group; venture capitalist Jim Breyer, the founder and CEO of Breyer Capital and a partner in Accel Partners; and Paul Singer, founder of Elliott Management, a hedge fund company. Singer is also a co-founder of Start-Up Nation Central.

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