At age 18, K., like almost all Israelis, began his mandatory army service. “This was my way to give back to society and defend my country,” he says. “I was one of them. I was one of the radical ones.” From violent policing in the occupied West Bank to obscure, mundane office work, assignments in the Israeli Defense Forces vary wildly. K. remembers thinking, “Whatever job I’m given, I’ll do it.”
He also knew: “My head is stronger than my body. So, I thought, intelligence.”
After his initial assessment, K. was offered a chance to enter Unit 8200, an elite intelligence unit in the IDF. (K. spoke to Rest of World on condition of anonymity). Akin to the NSA, 8200 has attained an almost mythical cachet in the global tech industry. Graduates of 8200 go on to launch successful startups and land coveted jobs. Officially, an 8200 soldier’s status is classified both during and after service. Publicly, 8200 graduates happily boast of their experience in cover letters. In the many industries that touch their work, Unit 8200 is a brand name.
Post-8200 success comes at a cost: conscription to the unit requires five years of IDF service for many members. (The standard conscription period is currently 24 months for women, around 32 months for men). As for the incentives — what a post-8200 life might mean — K. says, “Other people around me did think about it. How it opened up doors afterwards. It’s there.” But for eighteen-year-old K., “being successful later in life and earning money and having a family and a house and whatever” wasn’t top of mind.
As K. recalls, the recruitment pitch directed toward him was more about the “caressing of ego.” He was told: “You’re the best. We chose you. You’re one in a million. Most people can’t handle this job. You’re a genius.” So he said yes.
K.’s family belongs to Israel’s old-school elite, made up of the children and grandchildren of the country’s founding generation. They are an economically privileged, majority Ashkenazi social class that, in years past, has made up a large percentage of IDF’s elite combat units. Within modern-day Israel, where there is no strong left-wing opposition remaining, this class’s political leanings are classified as liberal. “They are Zionist, but they think of themselves as peaceful,” K. explains, “as longing for peace.”
As in everywhere else in the world, the privileges of this elite come with proscriptions. “It was clear that, for someone like me, there are routes in life,” K. says. One example: “You don’t go to the Border Police,” in the occupied territories, where IDF soldiers physically control Palestinians’ movements. “It’s not ‘our kind of people’ that do that kind of thing.”
But fulfilling your IDF service with honor is paramount to fulfilling your elite’s obligations. Serving in 8200, then, “is a way of achieving the goal, of being part of the one side but [without] doing the ugly stuff of the occupation.” For K., “intelligence was a moral choice.”
Many Israelis find ways to use their IDF skills in the private market. Israeli journalists often get their start at the IDF’s popular radio station, Galatz. For graduates of 8200, though, the post-army opportunities come in cybersurveillance.
A 2018 study cited by Haaretz estimated that 80% of the 2,300 people who founded Israel’s 700 cybersecurity companies had come through IDF intelligence. Private Israeli companies have sold surveillance technology to Malaysia, Botswana, Azerbaijan, Angola, Honduras, Peru, Nigeria, Ecuador, Mexico, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, Uganda, and the United Arab Emirates. The industry’s collective sales are near $1 billion annually.
Israel’s cyberintelligence community is met with global prestige. But international human rights organizations and lone activists are pushing against the ease and secrecy with which homegrown companies export their cyberweaponry all around the world.
Meanwhile, a generation of brilliant young people is being funneled from a resource-rich government spy agency into an unchecked cyber-surveillance industry. Can anything stop this pipeline?