Security and Defense: Learning to dare

From military encryption to online content – how a secretive IDF unit is creating hi-tech giants.

By
September 13, 2013 14:24
4 minute read.
THE ARMY takes kids out of high school and teaches them how to realize their vision.

idf soldiers at computer 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

What do Adam Singolda, the 32-year-old creator of leading hi-tech firm Taboola, and Maj. Alon (last name withheld), 30, a senior data encryption officer in the IDF, have in common? They both originated from the IDF’s Center for Encryption and Information Security, a secretive military unit that makes sure the enemy isn’t listening in on the most sensitive of communications.

It is the CEIS that allows soldiers to speak to one another from different cities over secure cellular lines, missiles to communicate safely with control stations, fighter jet pilots to talk to air force bases, or rocket defense batteries (such as Iron Dome) to send and receive vital signals before intercepting incoming projectiles.

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In recent years, the CEIS has played a lead role in the technological revolution washing over the IDF, and allowed for the creation of what security officials call “mega systems” that now serve the military.

Singolda, a native of Rishon Lezion, served in the CEIS, and went on to use the skills he learned there to found a highly innovative and influential hi-tech Internet content company.

The son of Avi Singolda, Shlomo Artzi’s well-known guitarist, Singolda, who did not complete university, now heads a multinational company that serves 300 million people and processes 3 billion files of content per day.

If you’ve come across a message at the bottom of an online article suggesting that you may be interested in clicking on associated content, chances are good that Taboola placed it there.

“We look at all the articles people read, their Twitter feeds, and tens of billions of data points. We do an analysis every 15 minutes,” Singolda explained.

He said the daring for creating a company like Taboola came directly from the CEIS. “When someone has an idea, he’s encouraged to pursue it. The philosophy we learned at CEIS is: Make it work, and make it better.”

Singolda began specializing in computers in high school, and dreamed of joining the CEIS as a teenager, he told The Jerusalem Post.

“I knew this was the smartest unit in the world,” he said. “I wanted to be part of a small unit, rather than a big organization like Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200. I didn’t want to be one small part in a vast army machine.”

During a trial period to enter the CEIS, Singolda headed a sevenperson team, while a second team was headed by an applicant named Alon Pilberg. Singolda was so impressed with Pilberg’s programming skills that he recommended him rather than himself during his interview with the CEIS’s selections officer.

Today, Singolda and Pilberg, who served in the CEIS for years, work together at Taboola.

In 2005, after leaving the army, Singolda entered the start-up world.

“We set up projects that competed with Skype, connecting two phones through a voice over IP network,” he said. “We were asked to complete the project within a year. We did it in a week. Pilberg can do it in an hour.”

In 2006, Singolda began putting the wheels in motion for Taboola’s creation. “The ability to fish out the right people – I also learned that at the CEIS,” he said. “I learned how to create a firm, and let people work on it, creating incredible projects.”

After raising 50 million dollars from investors, Singolda set up Taboola in Israel and began recruiting.

Today, he lives in New York City, where the company is headquartered, maintains a research and development center in Tel Aviv, and opened branches in the UK and Thailand.

His former army colleague, Maj. Alon, stayed in the military. Joining the IDF in 2000, he spent 10 years doing a variety of classified roles in the IDF’s Computer Service Directorate, before joining the CEIS in 2010.

Today, Alon heads the Combined Encryption Branch at the CEIS.

“We carry out combined encryption. This is an area of responsibility that deals with all encryption processes, from phones to missile communications. Anything that is broadcast through the air,” he said.

“This is where kids are given ultraheavy responsibility. We have a kid in the CEIS – last year ago he was in 12th grade. He’s an incredible programmer – light flashes out of his fingers.

Now, he’s programming the encryption program for David’s Sling,” said Alon, referring to the anti-rocket defense system the IDF is developing to deal with Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal.

“What we do here is press our advantages – even though taking kids to do these jobs can be a huge risk. At the end of the day, the army is taking a big gamble,” he acknowledged, adding, “If a young programmer makes a mistake, he can cause whole systems to crash.”

“Our spirit is in our profession. We have a certain audacity. A guy aged 18 to 20 is told to just give it a whirl. Then, he starts managing people. The IDF pushes them to realize their vision,” Alon said. “I don’t know how it works, but it works.”

The CEIS is good at headhunting bright high school students as potential recruits, while also filtering through applicants. Some recruits already received a higher education before joining the unit.

But the unit has learned that finding the right people is easier than keeping them.

While plenty of the CEIS’s gifted soldiers stay on, not enough resist the temptation to head down the path taken by Singolda and take their valuable skills to the corporate world.

Singolda, who says he keeps in close contact with his former colleagues from the unit, expressed hope that “the diamonds” remain in the unit.“This is about ability, and a group of people that nothing can stop. They’re daring because they understand they must get to everything.”“ There’s no other place like this,” he said.


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