Jefferson Morley | February 12, 2020
How the IDF’s Unit 8200 Feeds Israeli Cybersecurity Startups
One feature in the growth of “surveillance capitalism” is the boom in private intelligence companies, which offer the services of a secret intelligence agency to paying clients.
The United States has spawned numerous private intelligence companies, including a firm called DREAD, run by Richard Clarke, a former top counterterrorism officials. The United Arab Emirates have used DREAD’s expertise to crack down both on suspected terrorists and non-violent opponents of the UAE monarchy.
But, proportionate to population, no country has contributed more to the private intelligence sector than Israel. Veterans of Unit 8200, the signals intelligence (SIGINT) and web intelligence (WEBINT) unit of the Israeli Defense Forces, have become industry leaders and the favorites of venture capitalists.
SecurityWeek.Com explains that Unit 8200
is generally considered among the elite of the world’s intelligence agencies. It is not the only technology unit in the IDF; but it is the offensive or proactive unit. All young Israelis do between 32 and 36 months military service from the age of 18. Those with a particular aptitude for SIGINT are literally ‘creamed off’ into Unit 8200.
SecurityWeek spoke to several founders of Israeli cybersecurity firms. All of them served in technology units, and most in Unit 8200. Other military units have their own technology sections; and these also lead to spin offs. Examples could include Yuval Diskin, former director of Shin Bet, who started the cyber-tech company Diskin Advanced Technologies LTD; and Haim Tomer, formerly head of the Mossad’s Intelligence Division, who is now a cybersecurity consultant. Despite such examples, however, it is the alumni of 8200 that dominate the new start-ups.
Understanding why Israel produces so many cybersecurity firms starts with understanding the converyor belt of talent that 8200 produces. Lior Div (CEO), Yossi Nar (CVO), and Yonatan Striem-Amit (CTO) are the three ex-8200 co-founders of Cybereason. “It starts,” explains Liv, “with how people are selected to get into 8200. The Unit interviews all new draftees, using a series of tests looking at background, math proficiency, programming capabilities and pure intelligence. 8200 gets ‘first pick’.”
This is the basis of today’s Unit 8200: the cream of youth, highly trained in signals intelligence, encouraged to be audacious in thought and action, and imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit. These young people are then released back into society following their required national service in their early twenties. This is a situation unique in the world.