Unit 8200 is Israel’s equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) or GCHQ in Britain; what sets the unit apart from its SIGINT counterparts in the United States and Europe is that it does almost all its research and development in-house; this means that, aside from interpreters and analysts, the unit is home to a huge cadre of engineers, technicians, and programmers; one result is that veterans of Unit 8200 have founded many of Israel’s successful high-tech start-ups
The waves of cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities and critical infrastructure – the attacks we know of: Stuxnet, Duqu, Flame – have drawn attention to the secretive Unit 8200, the cyberwarfare unit within the Israel Defense Force (IDF) Military Intelligence (MI) branch (these cyberattacks have also drawn attention to the U.S. efforts in this regard: see David Sanger, “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran,” New York Times, 1 June 2012). The Financial Times notes that Unit 8200 is Israel’s equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) or GCHQ in Britain. These three organizations belong to a branch of the military called signals intelligence, or SIGINT. Unit 8200’s task is to intercept, monitor, and analyze enemy communications and data traffic — from mobile phone chatter and e-mails to flight paths and electronic signals. The unit’s goal is to “fish out from an ocean of data the piece of information that will help the Israeli security forces identify and thwart a potential attack,” the FT writes.
In addition, Unit 8200 is responsible for all aspects of cyberwarfare.
The Israeli military allows no information about Unit 8200 to leak out: it has a base in the Negev desert, and several other installations around the country, but the precise location of these facilities remains secret, as is the identity of the current commander, the unit’s budget, and the precise number of soldiers and officers serving in the unit.
The FT notes that what sets the unit apart from its SIGINT counterparts in the United States and Europe is that it does almost all its research and development in-house. “This means that, aside from interpreters and analysts, the unit is home to a huge cadre of engineers, technicians and programmers.”
One consequence of this in-house approach is that many veterans of Unit 8200, upon leaving the military, launch successful high-tech start-ups. The UPI offers an interesting look at Unit 8200 and its unique contribution to Israel’s high-tech sector.
Israel’s high-tech exports are estimated to be worth $18.4 billion a year, accounting for more than 45 percent of Israel’s exports. Many successful high-tech start-ups in Israel were launched by veterans of unit 8200. The short list would include:
- Gil Schwed, a young billionaires, launched CheckPoint, one of Israel’s leading high-techs.
- The Zisapel brothers, Yehuda and Zonhar, sold and floated a dozen of high-tech companies for hundreds of millions of dollars.
- Yair Cohen, a former brigadier general who once commanded Unit 8200, heads the intelligence cyber department of Elbit Systems, a leading Israeli defense company. “It’s almost impossible to find a technology company in Israel without people from 8200 and in many cases the entrepreneur, the manager or the person who had an idea for the project will be someone from 8200,” Cohen told UPI.
- Aharon Zeevi Farkash, another former commander of Unit 8200, is the founder and chief executive of FST21. Seven of the ten engineers at the company are former Unit 8200 personnel.
The Financial Times commented on FST21: the company’s “main product is a mix of technologies, combining hardware and software to suit a specific need. Such technological mash-ups have long been regarded as a specialty of Israel’s high-tech entrepreneurs. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the company bears the unmistakable stamp of Israel’s most successful and secretive technology incubator … Unit 8200.”
Farkash says that the unit’s internal procedures and organizational culture read almost like a playbook for the start-up economy. “We are very tolerant of mistakes . . . It is impossible to be creative when fear leads you,” he says. At the same time, the unit hands immense responsibility to men and women barely out of their teens — and tries to instill in them the belief that they can rise to the occasion.
Cohen agrees, telling the FT that the key to success is to find smart, effective solutions for problems that have not even surfaced in the real world. “Ideally, we want to be in a position to understand the implications of a new technology before a terrorist group, or the Syrian army, will start using it,” says Cohen. “If you look at the organization, it is basically made up of hundreds of start-ups,” he explains, adding that the development teams wrestle with all the same problems a start-up encounters: tight budgets, tight deadlines, rising threats from the outside, and constant pressure to perform. “All the time, you are trying to do something not with 300 people but with 30, not with $100 million, but with $10 million.”
Yossi Vardi, who founded the first Israeli software company in 1969, told the FT: “More high-tech billionaires were created from 8200 than from any business school in the country.”
The fact that a successful high-tech company is headed by former operatives of Unit 8200 may not always be helpful to business. One example: in late 2005, representatives of defense and intelligence agencies on the Committee of Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an inter-agency committee of the U.S. government which reviews the national security implications of foreign investments in U.S. companies or operations, objected to CheckPoint’s acquisition of Maryland-based security software developer Sourcefire. Sourcefire develops software for the U.S. military and intelligence community, and members of the U.S. national security establishment, and quite a few lawmakers, were uncomfortable with the idea of an Israeli company, founded and headed by veterans of Unit 8200, gaining intimate knowledge of Sourcefire’s solutions and applications. With growing efforts in Congress to limit foreign companies’ ownership of security-sensitive U.S. companies, the CheckPoint-Sourcefire deal increasingly appeared to be doomed, and in March 2006 the two companies announced that the acquisition was cancelled.