How Israel became a leader in cybersecurity and surveillance

Chief technology officer Yonatan Striem-Amit, left, and cofounder Lior Div of Cybereason, a Boston cybersecurity firm. Both are veterans of Unit 8200 of the Israel Defense Forces.
Chief technology officer Yonatan Striem-Amit, left, and cofounder Lior Div of Cybereason, a Boston cybersecurity firm. Both are veterans of Unit 8200 of the Israel Defense Forces. McClatchy

Israel, with a population of just eight million people, has become a powerhouse in cybersecurity. Only the United States has greater strength in the field.

“In Israel, there are 420 companies in the field of cybersecurity that get funded by venture capital,” said Lior Div, chief executive and co-founder of Cybereason, a company with offices in Boston and Tel Aviv.

A good number of the Israeli companies have one thing in common: Their founders emerged from an elite division of the Israel Defense Forces known as Unit 8200, a legendary high-tech spy branch that also has become a prolific technology incubator.

Unit 8200, which comprises several thousand cyber warriors, is the Israeli equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency and is under the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Among the unit’s missions are offensive strategy, cybersecurity, encryption and signals intelligence.

Most of its members are still teenagers, selected for their math and science skills but still untrained at formal universities. Nearly all Israelis must serve a stint in the IDF but only a select few are recruited into 8200.

“This is a unit that has first pick to take the one percent of one percent of people who have a specific capability,” said Div, who won a medal of honor for his work in the unit.

“You literally grow up with the unit’s motto of everything is possible. There is no such thing as impossible. This is beat into you since Day One,” said Yonatan Striem-Amit, another Unit 8200 veteran who is Cybereason’s chief technology officer.

Staffing the unit with skilled, talented innocents is a positive rather than a negative, its veterans say.

“You tell them, ‘Hey, there is a problem here that you need to solve.’ What you are not telling them is that five different teams tried to solve it and failed,” Div said.

Motivated by patriotism, aware of the proximity of mortal enemies with increasing cyber skills, and without superiors insisting on traditional ways of doing things, the unit’s members dive headlong into task-oriented challenges.

“When you are young and you don’t have a family, you don’t have anything else in life but that,” said Giora Engel, a 35-year-old 8200 veteran who is cofounder of LightCyber, another cybersecurity firm.

Engel recalled how astonished he was at the capabilities and technologies of the unit.

“It’s the most cutting edge that you can think about,” Engel said. “Before I joined the army, I didn’t realize how advanced it was.”

Veterans of the unit – and other IDF units with a cyber function – form a fraternity of sorts that have seeded the cybersecurity world. That was apparent last week in the halls of the RSA cybersecurity conference, an annual gathering named for its corporate organizer that drew more than 43,000 participants to San Francisco’s Moscone Center.

“There’s a joke around RSA that it’s the only place in the U.S. where you ask instructions in Hebrew and get the answer in Hebrew,” said Striem-Amit.

A few big-name cybersecurity firms started by 8200 alums include Check Point Software Technologies, a Tel Aviv-headquartered firm, and CyberArk, which has its headquarters in Newton, Massachusetts. And new companies emerge each year. Forty Israeli start-up cyber companies raised $360 million last year, part of the $850 million that poured into acquisitions and investment in the sector, according to the Cyber Research Databank.

Their focuses include threat intelligence; security of the cloud, mobile devices and connected cars; industrial automation security; incident response; and user behavior analysis and data mining.

“If you look at the Israeli high-tech economy, the overall majority of companies are driven and were created by people in the intelligence community, of which 8200 is the shining beacon at the top,” Striem-Amit said.

“(Unit) 8200 became like the buzzword of cybersecurity expertise,” said Kobi Freedman, founder of Comilion, a collaborative intelligence-sharing platform that was sold last month to Dell-EMC, a Hopkinton, Massachusetts, data storage and information security company.

Freedman said veterans of elite IDF units gain world-class experience at a young age.

“A lot of them don’t need to be instructed. They solve problems,” Freedman said.

Entrepreneurship comes easily to the veterans, who serve three- to five-year stints.

“We have missions,” said Almog Ohayon, founder of Javelin Networks of Tel Aviv, and a veteran of Ofek, the IDF’s satellite and reconnaissance division. “You need to eliminate someone or find someone. You have to complete the mission. It’s very similar to start-up culture. The start-up world is task oriented.”

Not all of Israel’s high-tech cyber firms have a positive reputation. A few specialize in wiretapping and internet monitoring technology that governments and security forces have used against dissidents in places like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, South Sudan and Uzbekistan.

In a report released last July, London-based Privacy International, a nonprofit watchdog group, cited 27 surveillance companies with headquarters in Israel, and said exports of the technologies “foster military, security and diplomatic ties with recipient countries” with little regard for human rights.

“Investigations published by Privacy International show that Israeli companies have provided phone and internet monitoring technologies to the secret police in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, as well as security forces in Colombia,” the report said. “Agencies in Panama and Mexico have reportedly been customers of intrusion technology developed by Israeli NSO Group.”

Freedman, the engineer who founded Comilion, said Israel’s defense ministry issues licenses for the export of any technology that involves surveillance.

“A lot of technologies can be exploited to serve unjust causes. Part of the so-called bad reputation . . . is from countries who take certain technologies and use it to do bad things,” he said.

“Israel didn’t invent surveillance,” Freedman added.

It’s all part of the skills imparted through the IDF training in its elite units.

“The reality is you get a tool set that is so big and so rich that you have to find a problem,” Striem-Amit said. “An entrepreneur from 8200 finds the right business problem and thinks outside the box.”

Engel, seated at the edge of a cavernous exposition center filled with booths from cybersecurity companies from all over the globe, said veterans of 8200 like himself are playing a growing role.

“I think I know over 1,000 people from the unit,” Engel said. “It’s kind of a brand name.”

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4