People check out the booths at Cybertech Global TLV 2023. Photo by Judith Segaloff.
People check out the booths at Cybertech Global TLV 2023. Photo by Judith Segaloff.

When I grow up I want to be a … hacker

Rogue 13-year-olds and fresh perspectives—Tel Aviv Cybertech 2023 sees firms and investors looking for the next big thing.

What do you get when you put hundreds of hackers in an exposition center? Cybertech 2023 in Tel Aviv, of course. At the annual event, cybersecurity companies old and new display their wares to those who speak in code.

This year’s Cybertech event, held at Expo Tel Aviv (commonly called the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds) from Monday through Wednesday this week, was particularly robust, with participating companies from Italy, Singapore, Japan, Panama, Kenya, Nigeria and Canada, to name just a few of the 80 countries. More than 150 startups took part and, of course, where there are startups and other companies dealing with hacking, there are investors and businesses from a wide range of sectors.

At Cybertech Global TLV 2023, they included firms dealing with critical infrastructure, insurance, retail, health, government, defense, R&D and manufacturing.

Eighth- and ninth-graders from the Yitzhak Shamir High School in Tel Aviv surveyed the Expo Hall in wonder, marveling at the plethora of businesses.

“You can really see cybersecurity approaches from differing points of view,” pointed out one ninth-grader.

A student tests the punching bag at Cybertech. Photo by Judith Segaloff.

“And the marketing!” said another, staring at a booth that had a punching bag registering the strength of each blow and offering participants the opportunity to win a bottle of whiskey. 

The students were brought to the event by Or-Tal Kiriati, who teaches them English and entrepreneurship. A former entrepreneur herself, Kiriati works with each child to develop his or her ideas and learn lessons even from failure.

“That is not something usually taught in school—failure, but it is a lesson for every budding entrepreneur,” she explained.

In one of the many lectures delivered at the event, Prof. Rafael Malach, who teaches neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, said very young people demonstrate the source of creativity.

“When children play,” he explained, “they frequently make mistakes. They fail. And it doesn’t matter. Creativity is fostered by the freedom of being able to be wrong if the system tolerates it. Creativity is the ability to want things, imagine things, to dream.”

Sahar Avitan, Dvir Karilker and Eden Zaraf of Kayran. Photo by Judith Segaloff.

Inspired by movies

Eden Zaraf from Nitzanei Oz, east of Netanya, was surely one of the youngest chief technical officers at Cybertech. He co-founded his cybersecurity company Kayran when he was 16 years old. Initially, he was inspired by movies he saw as a child that often portrayed a character hacking into a system in order to save the universe.

“I wanted to be that guy,” says the now 18-year-old Zaraf. “I wanted to be a hacker.”

He was too young for computer classes and had no one to ask for guidance. His family is not computer literate. So at age 13, he turned to Google and taught himself coding and programming.

His first hack targeted a large Israeli email platform company ridden with vulnerabilities that allowed hackers access to anyone’s email account.

“I reported it to the company and sent them a video, showing how I was able to hack in, along with a report,” Zaraf recalled.

The company quickly thanked him and fixed the problem within two hours.

Zaraf learned that some companies don’t appreciate finding out that their site is vulnerable. However, some of the larger companies reward hackers, leading him to seek them out and become a “pen tester” (penetration tester), getting paid for finding vulnerabilities in well-known sites.

“I loved it because you need to go inside the mind of the programming to break through a wall,” he said. “Just yesterday, I found a hack in a chain of movie theaters that allowed me to get free tickets.”

Whiz kid Eden Zaraf hacks at Cybertech 2023. Photo by Judith Segaloff.

Each day, Zaraf returned from school and hacked into the night, looking for faulty code. He sought to connect with others who had similar interests and found a Hebrew-speaking cyberspace community on Telegram, in which he took an active role.

At age 16, Zaraf sat for the bagrut high school matriculation exam and passed with flying colors. He began to co-administer the Telegram group with Sahar Avitan, who is now the CEO of Kayran.

A pen tester and researcher for 10 years, Avitan started Kayran to create a free library for others in the “white hat” hacking community—hackers with positive rather than negative or even criminal intentions. Zaraf and Avitan worked together to create an automatic scanner that helps small businesses and large companies test their online assets and identify vulnerabilities.

Zaraf will be joining the army in six months and, while the situation is complicated, he said he is confident his team will be able to manage without him. So far, the 10-person enterprise, which also includes quality assurance analyst Dvir Karilker and Amelie Botbol in sales and marketing, has big plans for Kayran. They hope the company will be a leader in web application security platforms.

Ziv Yankowitz at the Surf Security exhibit. Photo by Judith Segoloff.

Fresh mindsets

Ziv Yankowitz, CTO of Surf Security, also displayed his platform—a secure enterprise browser that looks like Chrome and acts like Chrome—at Cybertech. It helps protect companies and their employees from a host of interceptions, including phishing attacks, malware and DLP (Data Leakage Protection) platform masks. 

Data masking is a way to create a fake but realistic version of an organization’s data to protect sensitive data while providing a functional alternative when real data is not needed, for example in training, demonstrations and software testing.

Surf also protects company information from rogue consultants who might be trying to download it.

Yankowitz explained, “Chrome is used by everyone, even hackers. And it’s easy to plug malicious ware into the systems. Businesses need to remember that every website can be controlled.”

As for rogue 13-year-olds, Yankowitz smiles: Surf employs pen testers who are still in high school.

“They are on our payroll,” he said. “Working with teens provides fresh mindsets and perspectives that are different from the rest of us. We also look for geographically diverse testers, employing some from as far away as South Korea.

“We find the vulnerabilities and help the companies resolve them,” he said.

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