Episode Show Notes



JACK: Governments are hacking into other governments. They do it to steal secrets or find how many weapons they have, if they’re planning a strike, or if there’s anything else that might be a threat. Some nations are much more advanced at security than others. One country with advanced cyber-security capabilities is Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

PM: Eight years ago my goal was to make Israel one of the five leading cyber powers in the world. I think we’ve reached that. I think we’re actually maybe even further ahead on that list.

JACK: This is incredible. Israel isn’t even as big as the state of New Jersey so for such a small country to achieve this is no small task.

PM: Means we’re punching a bag two-hundred times above our weight. Not two times, not ten times, and not even a hundred times. Two-hundred times above our weight which means there’s something here that defies numerical size.

JACK: How did such a small country become one of the leaders in the cyber-security space? That’s what we’re gonna find out.

JACK (INTRO): [INTRO MUSIC] These are true stories from the dark side of the internet. I’m Jack Rhysider. This is Darknet Diaries. [INTRO MUSIC ENDS]

JACK: Israel is a tiny country in the Middle East. Most of the countries in the Middle East speak primarily Arabic but not Israel. Most of the countries in the Middle East are predominantly Muslim but not Israel. Many of the Middle Eastern countries are rich in oil but not Israel. It’s almost like Israel is a glitch on the map, a lone island in a sea. But you know what happens when a grain of sand gets into an oyster? The oyster attacks the sand and tries to get rid of it by secreting substances at it and if the sand doesn’t leave, it continues to attack it for years until one day it’s a beautiful pearl. Israel is under attack. [BOMBING] I’m not gonna get into who started what and why there are so many battles going on but at this point the cycle of revenge grows louder all the time. Because Israel is right in the middle of it all, they need to stay technologically advanced or else they risk being taken over.

One example of using technology to defend the attacks is the Iron Dome. Israel frequently sees rockets launched into the country and when this happens the Iron Dome kicks into action; [SIRENS] first initiating a siren in the area, then launching a rocket that flies directly towards the incoming missile and detonates when it’s near it. [EXPLOSIONS] It takes out 90% of incoming rockets this way, and it’s almost an automated method. It’s pretty impressive because of how high-tech and effective it is. This is just one example of how Israel is investing in technology but the whole nation is high-tech. Compared to the US, Israel has more scientists and technicians per capita than us, they have a bigger smart phone penetration percentage than us, and there’s a bigger percent of people online compared to the US. It’s one of the most innovative countries in the world and when you find a place this rich in technology you’ll also find information security. Israel has a few hacker and cyber-security conferences and during some of these conferences the Prime Minster gave a keynote.

COURT: [APPLAUSE] Welcome Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel.

JACK: During the talk he explained a new complex they’re building in the desert in a town called Be’er Sheva.

PM: It’s called CyberSpark. It’s a cyber-park and it’s situated in Be’er Sheva. We’re moving our NSA right into that campus.

JACK: Our NSA. The Israeli government has its own version of the NSA. This fascinates me. I want to know more about this. He goes on to explain this CyberSpark further.

PM: It’s a peculiar one because it has several things adjoining each other and I’ll point them out to you. First thing is we have the Unit 8200 headquarters, our collection agency. Here’s the university. Railroad fast line to Tel Aviv University is here, the CERT center here.

JACK: He just pointed to a map and said here is where Unit 8200, their collection agency, is being built, also explaining that this complex has a university, the Israeli Computer Emergency Readiness Team, and a bunch of buildings specifically built for cyber-security companies to work at. Imagine an area of six city blocks that’s roped off for just cyber-security stuff, a place where commercial government and education will all live in the same campus with a train station smack in the center of it. How cool is that? This whole complex is amazing but I’m fascinated with the [00:05:00] intelligence-collection agency, Unit 8200. Later on the Prime Minster commented about the NSA and then said…

PM: If you don’t know what NSA is, it’s America’s 8200 Unit.

JACK: Unit 8200. Now we know the secret name of the Israeli intelligence-collection agency. But wait, it can’t be secret. The Prime Minister just said its name to everyone at this conference. Well, someone must have let the cat out of the bag before the Prime Minister. [MUSIC] Unit 8200 was started way back in the 1950s. It was a small group of people who got ahold of some used surplus spy gear from the US and they put antennas on hills and bugged phone lines to try to pick up on covert communications. Back then it was a secret simply because the unit was so small. It wasn’t even called 8200 yet; something like Unit 515 and then changed to Unit 848 and during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, one of the intelligence officers from Unit 848 was captured by Syria. This gave Syria a ton of information about this secret unit. At that point Israel had to reboot the unit, changing the name to 8200, and they gave it a boost of resources and people.

Then Unit 8200 became a top-secret organization in the military. Members of 8200 couldn’t even tell their parents what unit they were serving in. The number was forbidden to say out loud and 8200 began rapidly growing its strengths and capabilities. [MUSIC] As the world became more connected and secrets became more exposed, it seemed like the world somehow found out about it and so in 2011 a book was written called Startup Nation and it had a whole chapter about what Unit 8200 is all about. This surprised a lot of members but since this book came out, it’s now been publically known what this unit does and how it operates.

Except, I never heard of it until now so I became curious to learn as much as I could about Israeli’s NSA, or Unit 8200. According to the book, the central mission of the unit is to save lives, prevent terror, and other attacks and Unit 8200 does that mostly using computers and electronics. What an intelligence-collection agency does is try to gather information about any plans for upcoming attacks or threats against the nation. They do this by spying on the enemies and listening to the wires. When the military leaders become aware that someone is planning something, this intelligence can save lives. But these attacks against Israel aren’t just in the form of rockets and physical assaults.

PM: Today warfare has changed again, dramatically. I don’t mean just physical warfare; I’m talking about the capacity and it’s not imaginary. It’s not futuristic and it’s not exaggerated. It’s moving very rapidly to a situation where with a click of a button you can bring down nations to their knees very rapidly if you so desire and if you’re willing to take the risks. Because every system can be hacked.

JACK: [MUSIC] While Hamas may be launching rockets in Israel, another country is attacking Israel over the internet.

PM: I want to be clear that the party behind the cyber-attacks against Israel is first and foremost Iran, including the Hamas attacks. Iran supports all our enemies. Iran is the source of most of the attacks that are launched against Israel and we are not their only targets in the cyber-field. Iran and its proxies take advantage of the security and anonymity of cyber-space to attack many other countries around the world.

JACK: Whoa. I think it’s time to call Israel.

SHIRA: Hello, everyone. I’m Shira Shamban.

JACK: This is Shira. She spent thirteen years in the Israeli military and she’s going to help us understand more about Unit 8200. She currently heads the security research team for a company called Dome9 in Tel Aviv. Okay, so here’s the thing about Israeli military.

SHIRA: Military is mandatory.

JACK: [MUSIC] When people turn eighteen they must serve in the military for two years and eight months.

SHIRA: For men and women. It used to be two years for women and three years for men. Now it’s two years and eight months for everyone.

JACK: Mandatory military is not actually that common for nations around the world so this again makes Israel unique. There’s something to be said about the discipline and perspective you get from serving in the military. It toughens you up. But this also means people are only teenagers when they enter into Unit 8200, one of the most prestigious cyber-intelligence agencies of the world. You don’t get to decide where you’ll serve, though. The military decides that for you. To help them decide where you’ll go, it starts with a test.

SHIRA: You kind of take a test that is maybe [00:10:00] similar to SATs. Again, everyone takes the same test so it doesn’t matter where you grew up, who your parents are, if you chose to learn a computer science or art in high school. Everyone takes the same tests and from there, they start their path. By the way, you’re not supposed to do any preparation to that test. You just come as you are and take it. If you take it seriously then you might get on the right path to intelligence or to the air force or anything else that you want to do.

JACK: [MUSIC] This test is given to everyone at seventeen years old, one year before going into the military. One of the goals that this test aims to do is figure out which students are “rosh katan” and which are “rosh gadol”. These are Hebrew terms translated to mean “little head” and “big head.” Those who are rosh katan, or little head, will do only what’s asked of them and sometimes even less than that. They are obedient and good at following direct orders, kind of like how we want our students in schools to do in the US; learn the subject, take the test, don’t challenge authority, and get a passing grade. But Israel is very interested in students who exhibit rosh gadol, or big head. People who have this often do more than what’s asked of them, finishing their work and then going on to do extra credit or help others finish their work, or volunteer to do more work. They often challenge the status quo, asking things like why it’s done this way and trying to rethink new ways to do it.

SHIRA: I was always that kind of person who volunteers and does a little more and goes to the scouts and so on.

JACK: Rosh gadol. People like this are encouraged in Israel. They have chutzpah, the audacity to do things that nobody asked them to do. They were able to think outside the box, on their own, with little guidance and support. People like this are constantly reinventing the way everything is done and improving methods, technologies, and tactics. In the American military it’s not a good idea to challenge your leaders but in the Israeli military, soldiers with rosh gadol are encouraged to challenge their leaders. Both personality types are very important. You need diligent workers to be able to follow orders and carry out tasks, but you also need people who can make strategic decisions and lead others. Unit 8200 specifically seeks out those with rosh gadol. Shira had this so they made her takes some intelligence tests.

SHIRA: I knew I wanted to have a meaningful experience. I wanted to do the best on the test but I wasn’t interested in particular in intelligence, and I was a little surprised I got more and more tests directing me into the arms of the intelligence. But I didn’t know this was going to happen to me and I didn’t plan for this to happen to me.

JACK: All eighteen year olds in Israel must join the military which means the Israeli Defence Force, or IDF, gets to review all the exams and choose the very best of the best to be put in the most elite units. Compare that to the US where the opposite is true; the US hopes the best of the best chooses them. Shira was doing good. They gave her more tests.

SHIRA: They tell you that these are tests for intelligence but they don’t tell you to what kind of role this is. I took many different kinds of tests. Some of them were testing my language skills and some of them were testing my ability to understand the text I was reading, or to find the important thing in the text. Some of them were checking general knowledge. At no point was I aware as to what’s going to happen to me, even on the interviews they had, they were very, very general. Like, let’s think about a problem and how are you going to approach it? Or let’s think about a puzzle where you don’t know how the finalized picture is going to look like. How are you going to do that? They gave me very, very general questions.

JACK: Then there are a series of interviews. You meet with the recruiters to tell them about yourself. They learn about your dreams and desires in life and what you’ve done and experienced. If you say you volunteer then they might ask what challenges you’ve had with that and if you prefer working alone or in groups.

SHIRA: This is very similar to questions you might get asked when you’re looking for a job. You might get asked what did you do when you and your boss didn’t get along, how did you handle so many projects?

JACK: Shira did all her interviews, completed all her tests, and did really well. Unit 8200 only picks from the top 1% of all candidates. Shira didn’t get picked by them.

SHIRA: There was an analyst in the central analysis unit. It’s the equivalent of I don’t know, maybe something like the CIA.

JACK: Even if you’re chosen to work in intelligence you still have to do basic training, a boot camp. So off with whatever clothes you used to [00:15:00] wear and on goes your uniform. Training is very physical; a lot of running, exercise, and even practicing using weapons. When that’s over, you join your unit and almost immediately you’re given complicated tasks to complete. Shira was given a task.

SHIRA: You write analysis about different topics that get all the way to the decision-makers. I remember one case that I had to write something about an event that was going on on that days and I knew he got that piece of paper that I wrote. I couldn’t leave any personal note there. It was very, very professional. Here are the details about what had happened, and so on. You feel very meaningful at a very young age.

JACK: [MUSIC] Shira wanted more from the military. She wanted to have the experience be meaningful and impactful on her life. She thought there could be more that she could do and got an idea.

SHIRA: I know I’m going to go to officer training. No one told me I was going to. This is just something I decided that I’m going to do.

JACK: Rosh gadol.

SHIRA: It wasn’t very easy but I managed to do that.

JACK: Upon becoming an officer you get reassigned. You’re given a new role for whatever the military needs at the time. Her new assignment was to be in charge of the combat intelligence.

SHIRA: I was in charge of the online intelligence and to close the loop between the forces that are deployed and the intelligence that we’re getting from 8200 and from other units at the time. This was very stressful, very online. You need to have a clear understanding about all the relevant intelligence that we have right now and where are the forces deployed right now, or where should we deploy them in order to stop the terrorist, and so on.

JACK: Shira began working with 8200, gathering whatever intelligence they had and providing it to the combat troops in the battlefield, and also getting requests from the combat units and asking 8200 to look into it. It’s important that the combat units know where the enemy is and where they plan on going next. This way the attacks can be stopped before they’re carried out and can save lives. This is a stressful and demanding job, prioritizing requests and moving a lot of information around very quickly.

SHIRA: At that point I actually finished my mandatory service but I still had the feeling that I didn’t have enough and I wasn’t sure what do I want to do. I went on an interview to become – to join 8200, the central production center where they produce intelligence. It’s a big factory of intelligence. I managed to get accepted. [MUSIC] This is when I started my 8200 part of my career. Very quickly I caught up. Within a couple of months I was just like everyone else. One thing that the military and the intelligence specifically knows how to do, is to quickly train people and make them professionals on a certain area, on a certain topic.

JACK: Training new members of Unit 8200 is an art form of its own. College dissertations could be written entirely about this.

SHIRA: We take teenagers, we take high school graduates, and we only have less than three years to train them, to make them useful, to actually make use out of them and then to say goodbye. We only have less than three years to do that, so training has to be very good and very quick. This is a great art and it starts by recruiting the right people.

JACK: You can imagine the intensity of the training in order to get these new soldiers to be valuable assets to one of the most elite intelligence-gathering units in the world. We’re talking eighteen year olds here who only have a high school diploma and they need to become a value add to the NSA. Every new Unit 8200 new recruit first has to do their basic training, that running and jumping, and shooting and stuff. After that they keep their military uniforms on and go to class.

SHIRA: After you do the boot camp there is an intelligence school and all intelligence training are happening there. You go there to the course you were selected to do. The course trains you for a specific role. You have many different kinds of roles. Some are more technological, some has to do more with languages and within that few months, yes, you sit in a classroom most of the day and you’re being taught everything you need to know for I don’t know, twelve hours a day.

JACK: Shira didn’t tell me what training happens [00:20:00] there or even what kind of classes there are, so I’m gonna take some educated guesses here as to what they do. First I think they’re probably trained on how to use some equipment; antennas, radios, internal network, computers, and lots of different software. Then I think they teach you how to teach yourself where to find answers when you get lost. Have you ever been given a task at work and you say I was never trained on this, and because of that you just don’t do it? That’s a completely unacceptable attitude for 8200. They’re purposely given tasks that they have no training whatsoever on and they have to figure it out. They have to learn how to be good at figuring out things they have no knowledge of.

I imagine it’s kind of like learning how to run in pitch darkness. During some training exercises you don’t even understand what you just did to complete the objectives until it’s all over and you review your work. Yes, there are a lot of reviews that you must do. Why did you make this decision? Why didn’t you consider this or use that resource? Then I believe they do training simulations where you have to complete a very rigorous task with very little resources in a very short amount of time, putting you in an intense and high-pressure situation where you have to learn how to perform effectively with a cool head. I’ll paint a picture a little clearer for you. Remember these famous words?

APOLLO: Okay, Houston, we have a problem here.

JACK: When astronauts aboard Apollo 13 did one last systems check before heading to bed, they heard a loud bang and found one oxygen tank was reading empty. Fuel cells were failing and the rest of the oxygen was emptying fast. The situation quickly grew worse and the crew had only minutes left to live.

APOLLO: Okay Houston, are you still reading me?

HOUSTON: That’s affirmative. We’re reading you. We’re trying to come up with some good ideas here for you.

JACK: The NASA team back in Houston had to act quickly. A small team locked themselves in a room to try to figure out a plan. The pressure to find a solution was enormous. Where are you going to get extra oxygen and fuel in space? Not only is the mission at risk but lives are, too. The clock was ticking fast but this small team had trained exhaustively for this moment. Not this exact problem, but this exact moment. [MUSIC] They had already been working together for years and knew each other very well. They practiced solving problems just like this. They’re used to solving problems with limited resources that should be on board but now are gone, and they’re used to finding out-of-the-box solutions to fix major issues.

This wasn’t a drill though. This was a lifesaving rescue plan and they got the astronauts home. Exactly how the NASA scientists trained for this moment is very likely how the 8200 trains their soldiers. They need small teams to come up with genius solutions with limited resources and on time. Whatever that training consists of at NASA, that’s what I believe is the kind of training that’s going on in Unit 8200. To say it’s intense is an understatement. Shira wouldn’t tell me exactly what tasks are performed in 8200. That’s a secret, but she gave a few clues and several online sources did explain more. First we need to understand what the goals are of intelligence-gathering.

SHIRA: Intelligence comes to answer a question and the decision makers might, yes, they might have some questions and they would need our help to get an answer. When we get a question we try to do everything in our power to answer that question. You go and look for the answer anywhere you can.

JACK: Unit 8200 is a signals collection unit, or SIGINT for short. This means they’re actively listening and watching for any information the enemy has created. They’ll read enemy newspapers, listen to enemy radio, look through documents, listen to phone calls, tap network connections, and more. They look through this trying to find anything that may be a threat or information about a target so 8200 members have to have excellent comprehension skills to be able to quickly read documents and look for specific information they need. A lot of these communications will be in foreign languages, too. 8200 is also dealing with a lot of code-making and code-breaking. This is making sure their own troops’ communication is secure enough that the enemy can’t listen to them, and then also working feverishly hard to break encryption on enemy transmissions. Sometimes you need to go deeper to dig up some really good information so you may need to hack into an enemy network or computer to gather that data.

SHIRA: [MUSIC] Today military combat might not happen in the physical domain. It might happen in the cyber-domain.

JACK: There’s the sense in 8200 that there’s no option for failure because often the missions are life or death. If you fail, people die. If you choose wrong, people die. If you aren’t good enough, people die. Members are extremely driven to succeed any way they can. The pressure is enormous. Some online articles tell stories that Unit 8200 can infiltrate a terrorist cell by gaining access to all their communications; cell phone towers, text messages, phones, e-mails, and more. Once you’re in [00:25:00] a smart phone, you might be able to enable the camera or microphone or get the GPS coordinates and know exactly where your target is and what they’re doing. This can be passed on to the combat troops to get up to the second information. Consider Operation Orchard. This was kept secret for ten years but it’s now been unveiled. Here’s what happened.

In 2007 Syria was believed to be building a nuclear facility so Unit 8200 put the location on their watch list, photographing it, finding who’s coming in and out, watching what deliveries are made, and listening to any chatter about the facility. Eventually enough intelligence was collected and the Israeli military decided to strike. They deployed fighter jets during the cover of darkness but that wasn’t enough. The jets flew low, below the radar, but that still wasn’t enough. Syria had an air defense system that could still detect these jets. Another jet came with and an electronic warfare aircraft. This jet was somehow able to trick the Syrian air defense system to display the skies are clear and there’s no jets flying overhead. This was enough.

Israeli fighter jets flew in, bombed the facility, and got out before anyone knew what happened. No alarms. Rumor has it that 8200 was responsible for using that electronic warfare aircraft to disable their air defense system, but that’s just a rumor. See, someone did disable Syria’s air defense system which is an amazing technological accomplishment and it’s been said that any and all intelligence missions within Israeli military involve 8200 in some way. I think because 8200 had enough evidence to believe a strike might occur on that facility, they probably took it upon themselves to go find a way to disable that air defense system because that’s what someone with rosh gadol would do. Always three chess moves ahead and sometimes even ahead of their own commanders. An article in Forbes a few years back had incredible interviews from former 8200 soldiers. They explained a few missions they’ve conducted.

One former member, Avishai, tells a story about a task he was given while in 8200. [MUSIC] The task was to break into the computers of a hostile country and grab specific data from those computers. He got into it and found the data but there was a big problem; the data was encrypted. Avishai could decrypt it but it was gonna take a long time, a really long time so he took a moment to think about how he could crack this encrypted data faster. He remembered that when he was on a previous mission he got access to a really fast cracking station but the problem was, that super cracking station was in another country, a hostile country. Avishai didn’t have time so he gave it a shot. He reestablished his access to that super cracking station in a hostile country’s network, uploaded the encrypted data to it, decrypted it, and then pulled it down without leaving a trace. It was really risky but it worked.

He completed in one day what a data scientist may have taken a year to do. Now Avishai has left 8200 and went off to co-found Wix, the website building tool. It’s crazy to think that the co-founder of Wix is an expert hacker, someone who’s broken into multiple countries and conducted massive amounts of espionage. Unbelievable. [MUSIC] Some missions that are given are practically impossible. Teams are sometimes given a task with ridiculous limiting constraints, like that Apollo 13 mission. But lives are at stake so some kind of plan or decision must be made. There is no option to say it’s too hard so sometimes the solution is a huge gamble. It’s like choosing between black or red on a Roulette table and hoping you choose correctly, or sometimes the odds are much worse and the only ideas you come up with are terrible but since that’s all you have you pick the one with the best odds, even if it’s a 10% chance of success, and deploy it.

Yes, it might be rushed and barely holding together but you ship it anyways. When it’s out of your hands you wait and watch. You watch your target’s GPS signal or listen to the combat troop’s radio transmissions and your whole team becomes glued to the screens to see if it works, waiting and watching. The anxiety feels like lightning is in the room. But when the troops conduct their attack and it’s clear that the mission is a success, a burst of joy emits from everyone in your squad. High fives all around and a trip to the tavern to celebrate, or you might even see the news of your work on TV, a pure rollercoaster of emotions. With Israel having this elite force of Unit 8200 they realized that some battles are safer fought online than sending combat troops into battle.

SHIRA: Disruption and sabotaging, I think it’s the new weapon in the world in general. You no longer need – I mean, you need your Air Force but there are some things you’re better off achieving without using any physical [00:30:00] weapon and using any – causing any physical damage. If you’re worried that ISIS are going to blow up a bomb somewhere and you can stop them by intercepting someone’s computer and destroying, I don’t know, something on it, then I think it’s a good idea.

JACK: Here’s the Prime Minister again.

PM: I believe that by working together we can more effectively defend against the forces of terror, this cyber-terror that threaten us all. When I said terror, actually, there’s a linkage between the forces of terror now and the use of the cyber-space. You see it most effectively or most tragically in ISIS; its use of cyber-tools, its ability to recruit young people with vulnerable dispositions. It’s also possible to fight them using these tools of big data, connectivity, and artificial intelligence. Same tools they use can be used against them and are being used against them with great effectiveness. I won’t go into that.

JACK: [MUSIC] In 2014, 43 former Unit 8200 members wrote a public letter calling out the pervasive spying on Palestinians. The letter read, “We refuse to take part in actions against Palestinians and refuse to continue serving as a tool for deepening military rule in the occupied Palestinian territories. Intelligence allows ongoing control over millions of people, thorough and intrusive monitoring, and invasive into most aspects of life. All of this does not allow for normal living and fuels more violence and puts off an end to the conflict.” Journalists interviewed some of these whistle-blowers to learn more. One of them said they’re sometimes given a mission to gather more information about a person in Palestine and they’re encouraged to not just tap their phones and invade their computer but also everyone they know; the target’s family, their friends, and even the sister’s boyfriend.

They’re looking for some secret that one of these people have. For instance, if someone in 8200 found that their target’s sister’s boyfriend is cheating on her, this information is given to the leaders because the spy could then go to the cheating sister’s boyfriend and threaten to tell his secret unless he cooperates with them, thus getting more information about the target. These whistle-blowers felt like this kind of surveillance was just going too far, tapping into lives of innocent Palestinians to threaten them to give up information like this was just too much. It’s blackmail and it’s too invasive. That’s why they wrote that public letter, to show how 8200 sometimes goes too far. So what does it look like inside Unit 8200? Shira wouldn’t tell me of course, but a trip to the library did. By looking through some books, reading online articles, and watching a lot of YouTube videos, I got a pretty good peek.

For instance, you heard earlier the Prime Minister pointing out to a map exactly where Unit 8200 is located and using Google image search, you can see what it may look like inside there. Most pictures have two to eight people in small rooms using computers and it looks like some kind of command line terminal is on the screen, and web browsers, and other screens are blurred. In fact most photos blur out the faces of the troops but all the troops are in uniform. One picture is of some supposed 8200 troops out in the field with laptops and antennas. There are three major intelligence bodies in Israel. Mossad is their foreign intelligence, Shin Bet is their internal intelligence, and Aman is their military intelligence body. Unit 8200 falls under the control of Aman, their military intelligence branch because 8200 works closely with combat troops and not so much on criminal investigations.

Now, troops within 8200 report to their officer, who then report to higher officers, all the way up to their commander. Then 8200’s commander reports to Aman’s major general. It’s not just a bunch of kids. There are a lot of senior officials calling the shots. If you disagreed with your officer about something you can skip rank and go above them all the way up to the commander to get them to see something differently. There’s even a special form to fill out which can be translated to On the Contrary Form. This is that rosh gadol attitude being nurtured and it’s a very important concept for the Unit. It encourages the troops to not just take orders blindly, but instead to really try to understand the concept of the task they’ve been given. This way, if they get into the details and see a better way to accomplish something, they can recommend a different mission or task.

It also means the officers need to understand the nature of the task and listen and trust the troops to make changes to the mission in order to be more effective. This gives each troop a profound sense of ownership of each task. It’s not just another mission; it’s their mission now. They have the power to improve it, add to it, or change it if they can come up with a compelling reason why. [MUSIC] Within 8200 are a lot of sub units. These sub units are specialized. For instance, there’s Unit 9900. These people [00:35:00] are specialized in visual intelligence-gathering. They sometimes are referred to as the Satellite Unit because they use satellites to take photos with. The IDF has at least ten satellites in space with high-tech capabilities. First of all, they can orbit the earth in 90 minutes flat, which usually means that at any given time the satellites are spread out enough to give worldwide coverage. Troops within 9900 can almost instantaneously snap a new photo of any location on the planet from space.

These cameras have the abilities to take photos through clouds or at night, and can even make detailed 3D maps of an area so whenever combat troops need a set of eyes in the sky, Unit 9900 is right there to help identify targets, their movement, and any other helpful information. Interestingly enough, because this is such a meticulous and visual task, Unit 9900 gets autistic volunteers to help out. People with disabilities are exempt from the military but some high-functioning autistic people still want to have the pride of serving so they join this Unit and are actually really good at scanning photos for relevant information. Another secretive Unit within 8200 is Unit 81. This is a big unit with possibly a thousand members and their job is to produce technical items for combat troops. They get requests for items and then make it, kind of like an intelligence toy factory. For instance, one request was to make a mine that was disguised to look like a rock but also had sensors in it to detect movement and sound.

Unit 81 built it in their workshop and gave it to the troops. I can only imagine they’re also making things like advanced spy gear, too. But one of the most prestigious and secretive groups within the Israeli Defense Force is the Talpiot Program. If Unit 8200 takes the top 1% of the best candidates, Talpiot takes the top 1% of that 1%. This program is the most advanced and intense technical training in the IDF. It requires 41 months of just training. Compare that to the two months of training for 8200. Now, 41 months is a year more than the required term to serve in the military and that’s just to get you trained up. Because of this enormous amount of investment the IDF puts into the Talpiot Program members, they have to serve a total of nine years. I spoke with one of these former Talpiot Program members on the phone. They wouldn’t let me use his voice or name but he helped illuminate what the Talpiot Program does.

They actually train alongside paratroopers which are elite combat troops themselves, actually getting dirty and using the same equipment the combat troops use to get an up close and personal sense of what the equipment is used for and how important it is to troops. Most importantly, how it can be improved. Tasks within the Talpiot Program are often RND oriented, developing new equipment, methodologies, and technologies to make the IDF better. Training includes a lot of physics, math, aerodynamics, chemistry, and science. But they also need to have an understanding of every branch of the IDF to know how effective each unit is and what tools can help make them more effective. For instance, one task mentioned was the helicopter pilots in the IDF were complaining about back pain after flying a lot. Talpiot Program members did an extensive analysis of how the human spine moves during flight and landing.

They even cut holes in the seat so they could watch the pilot’s spine during flight. They took their analysis back to the lab and studied it, and they created a better helicopter seat, one that causes less injuries. This constant reinvention of everything in the IDF helps them become and maintain their elite status. How does Unit 8200 compare to the NSA? Well, there’s one big difference. The US is a superpower and has interests all over the world while Israel is mostly focused on their specific region of the world. This means the US has a lot more resources to have a reach like that. They have more money, more people, more stations, more capabilities, and more operating agreements with different countries. But in terms of quality of work and sophistication of technology, they’re in the same league as each other. Israel’s focus is more narrow, targeting the Middle East, which sometimes makes them better than the NSA in some regions because they understand the nuances of the culture better and know where to look for the relevant information. We don’t know for sure but I’m guessing there’s around 5,000 to 10,000 active Unit 8200 members. After they serve their two years, eight months, they can quit.

SHIRA: Obviously the majority of them leave after they do their mandatory service but quite a few of them stay.

JACK: Shira went on to serve in 8200 for ten years. The average length of time for 8200 members is four years which means 8200 loses a quarter of their soldiers every year. Imagine if you lost a quarter of your co-workers every year where you work. This is a massive amount of churn. Every year, hundreds of new soldiers join and leave. For any company this would be a nightmare to deal with but the IDF has learned how to use this to their advantage.

SHIRA: Many people in the 8200 and specifically after you’re an officer you learn to do a little more than only the stuff you have to do. If you do more than just a little more, [00:40:00] you’re getting the right expertise to maybe become an entrepreneur, or maybe become an executive in a company out there because you care, because you lead people, because you think outside of the box, because you come up with the next challenge or the next product or the next big thing. Not because someone told you to think about it, but because you care about the company where you work for, or about – you understand the market and you think about the next big thing yourself.

JACK: This is what happens when you nurture rosh gadol. 8200 becomes a factory for creating start-up founders and executives. Whatever their training is in 8200, it’s so much more valuable than any tuition can buy. Because of that, a lot of them become entrepreneurs.

SHIRA: Yes, that is true. Especially true for the security, cyber-security industry. That’s obviously because people, when they went out of the military, they realized that there is a similar problem out there on the market that they can help to solve so they brought their great brains and their experience and created the product that would help other people to be safe.

JACK: Making a risky decision on a live battlefield can cost lives but when these 8200 members make a risky decision as an entrepreneur, it’s not as stressful for them. Tons of cyber-security start-ups were founded in Israel by former members of 8200 and here’s just a few of them; ICQ, Check Point Firewalls, Imperva, Cybereason, Radware, Waze, and Palo Alto Networks were all started by former 8200 soldiers. Oh, on a side note, Palo Alto has a threat intelligence team of their own called Unit 42 and the mission statement of the company is “To protect our way of life in the digital age by preventing cyber-attacks.” You see the same similarities as I do? Again, it’s fascinating to think that the senior leadership of all these companies are some of the top-trained hackers in the world, people who have hacked into governments and terrorist cells lead these corporations.

[MUSIC] As people start completing their time in 8200 and are getting ready to leave, Israeli companies will start recruiting them heavily. Israeli tech start-ups know very well what it means to have served in this elite force but a lot of 8200 members go on to university after they get out, and some even move over to becoming a doctor or architect. Not all of them go on to have a security career. But just imagine being in 8200 and then go off to spend four years at a university and get a degree. By the time you’re twenty-four you might already be married, you already have incredible experience, perspective, and education. Your potential is staggering. Once you get out of 8200 you’re then a reserve and have to spend up to three weeks a year going back to 8200, refreshing your skills all the way until you’re forty. This helps them stay connected with the latest technology which could also be valuable in the business world.

There’s also a yearly reunion where you leave your family and spend a week with your fellow soldiers you served with. Every year they do that. Keep in mind, all this is happening in a place not even as big as New Jersey with roughly the same population. Look at how dedicated they are to keeping these connections with one another. This has powerful results. Everyone knows everyone. If you screw up you can’t just disappear to Colorado or Florida. 8200 alumni are highly sought-after employees in Israel but American companies sometimes can’t read these resumes. They look it over, see military training, a few years of university, and ask that’s nice, now when do you plan on getting a real job? But this is changing, though. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have all set up offices in Israel knowing very well what it means to be an elite force in the Israeli intelligence.

Not only that, but a whole bunch of tech companies are acquiring Israeli start-ups like it’s a fire sale. Google recently bought Waze, the Israeli-based navigation system which was founded by a former 8200 member for 1.1 billion dollars. Intel bought an Israeli collision-avoidance software company for 15 billion dollars. Even Warren Buffet, a man who swore would only acquire American companies, has broke his rule and bought an Israeli tool company for 4 billion dollars.

WARREN: It’s one of the most remarkable businesses we’ve ever seen, run by truly remarkable people.

JACK: Nurturing this type of innovation has paid off in spades for Israel. They don’t have oil reserves to ride on so they rely on this innovation and technology to carry them into the future. Not only does having a thriving start-up scene boost their GDP but the innovation gets absorbed back into the IDF, making their military even stronger. After looking at this now, it’s easy to see why they’re becoming one of the top-ranked cyber-powers of the world. It looks like they’ll continue to hold onto that for some time and this is both exciting and scary to me. It’s exciting to see a nation take security so seriously on a macro level. [00:45:00] It’s like a giant experiment.

PM: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say its cyber-defense solutions will serve as the essential basis for human development and economic growth in this century. I believe that this is a tremendous engine of economic growth because I don’t think there’s a person on earth who’s not going to need cyber-security. I don’t think there is a nation on earth that is not going to need cyber-security. Some of them violate that security left and right but every country and every citizen of this planet will need cyber-security and this will be the century where cyber-security will either be achieved or we will lose the tremendous opportunities that face humanity.

JACK: But then it’s also scary because of how many conflicts Israel is involved in. A lot of people are very angry with Israel but aren’t developing the cyber-weapons anywhere near the speed that Israel is, which makes the power gap even greater. Building weapons for the cyber battlefield is the new arms race and Israel is clearly trying to win this race.

PM: Cyber-security is becoming increasingly a battlefield. We are bolstering our defenses and we are committed to maintaining Israel’s position as a global cyber-power. [MUSIC] We’ve done that now. We said we’d be among the top three and we are, but we have to make sure that we’re there ten years from now, twenty years from now, fifty years from now because it’s not going away.

JACK: [MUSIC] After hearing all this, one thing I keep thinking about is how former 8200 soldiers are working for many tech giants around the world but keep strong ties with their fellow soldiers. Imagine if one 8200 member goes off to work at Google to help develop the Chrome browser and then goes back to 8200 as part of their yearly duty and while there, they see a soldier building exploits for the Chrome browser. What do they do? Do they take the exploits from 8200 and patch it in Chrome or do they help their fellow soldier by sharing the source code? This isn’t a problem specific to Israel; Google has offices in Switzerland and South Korea where military is also mandatory so Google’s probably hiring soldiers from these countries, too. But see, we know NSA hoards zero-days and China steals source code and Russia meddles with elections, so it just makes me wonder how these situations get handled.

JACK (OUTRO): [OUTRO MUSIC] You’ve been listening to Darknet Diaries. A very special thanks goes to guest Shira Shamban. She’s out of 8200 now and works at Dome9. Check it out if you need solutions for securing AWS or Cloud infrastructure. To learn more about 8200 check out the book Start-up Nation and Spies Against Armageddon. Pretty much everything I discussed was from those two books. The rest of the sources are from various online articles. Hey, there’s now a place to get together with other Darknet Diaries fans to discuss the show. If you want to join us visit reddit.com/r/darknetdiaries. Oh, and please help support this show by donating to the Patreon. Directly supporting this show through that brings only good things for all of us. Soon I’ll be releasing bonus episodes just for Patreon supporters. This show is made by me, the slacker giraffe, Jack Rhysider. Theme music was created by the thumpin’ Breakmaster Cylinder.



Transcription performed by LeahTranscribes