Unit 8200: Israel’s cyber spy agency
Former insiders and whistle-blowers provide a view of the formidable military intelligence outfit
In a searingly hot afternoon at a campuslike new science park in Beer Sheva, southern Israel, I watched as a group of bright, geeky teenagers presented their graduation projects. Parents and uniformed army personnel milled around a windowless room packed with tables holding laptops, phones or other gadgets. There was excited chatter and a pungent smell of adolescent sweat.
This was a recent graduation ceremony for Magshimim (which roughly translates as “fulfilment”), the three-year after-school programme for 16 to 18-year-old students with exceptional computer coding and hacking skills. Magshimim serves as a feeder system for potential recruits to Unit 8200, the Israeli military’s legendary high-tech spy agency, considered by intelligence analysts to be one of the most formidable of its kind in the world. Unit 8200, or shmone matayim as it’s called in Hebrew, is the equivalent of America’s National Security Agency and the largest single military unit in the Israel Defence Forces.
It is also an elite institution whose graduates, after leaving service, can parlay their cutting-edge snooping and hacking skills into jobs in Israel, Silicon Valley or Boston’s high-tech corridor. The authors of Start-up Nation, the seminal 2009 book about Israel’s start-up culture, described 8200 and the Israeli military’s other elite units as “the nation’s equivalent of Harvard, Princeton and Yale”.
With a female IDF minder at my side, I listened as the teenagers described their projects. More than half were boys but there were girls too, and 8200 is open to both. Omer, 19, had designed a USB key that can suck information out of one computer and organise it on another: essentially, a hacking tool. “We made it appear like a keyboard so you can infiltrate any company in the world,” he told me. “It’s a proof of concept.”
Two 17-year-old boys, both named Lior (the IDF asked me not to use the students’ last names), had built a cellphone from scratch and programmed it to make and receive calls — until it had exploded in a power surge. “The project didn’t work as planned,” one of the pair explained.
Magshimim itself is difficult to get into. Funded by the Israeli state and the Rashi Foundation, a private outfit devoted to helping underprivileged youth, it targets gifted children in Israel’s poorer south and north. Applicants are admitted only after an online questionnaire, followed by a battery of more rigorous tests to gauge their abilities in programming, languages and thinking outside the box. (Another programme, Gvahim or “Heights” — targets children in central Israel, where wealth and opportunities are greater.) Of the 1,400 children who applied last year, about 500 got in; more than 2,000 have applied this year. “School can be boring for these kids — some fail,” Uri Rotem, one of the instructors, told me, “but they can do their best here, so they love it.”
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