How Israel's Shin Bet got into the hi-tech start-up business

The Israel Security Agency’s new hi-tech units will tip the scales against Hamas and Iran

 SHIN BET assurances on Ashdod Port: Israeli torpedo boat ‘Saar 5’ leaves the port, sailing toward neighboring Lebanese waters. (photo credit: Limor Edrey/AFP via Getty Images)
SHIN BET assurances on Ashdod Port: Israeli torpedo boat ‘Saar 5’ leaves the port, sailing toward neighboring Lebanese waters.
(photo credit: Limor Edrey/AFP via Getty Images)

When disputes erupted between the US and Israel over China’s running the new port in Ashdod, The Jerusalem Post was told that one of the assurances Jerusalem could provide came from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) regarding any technological surveillance issues.

In January and again in May, the Shin Bet thwarted Iranian plots to lure Israelis abroad to kill them or turn them into spies for an Iranian intelligence agent known as Rambud Namar for the benefit of the Islamic Republic.

In September, when an incident was avoided that could have led to the derailing of a train, the railway officials said a dangerous object was discovered by the agency’s regular security officials and that it possessed classified technologies to detect such objects.

Of course, the Shin Bet is constantly busy with thwarting a wide variety of terror threats emanating from the West Bank and Gaza, from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and others.

Why would these incidents and missions lead Israel’s elite homeland security agency to get into the start-up venture capital business and go out of its comfort zone to make more of its technological moves public?

 SECURITY FORCES arrest Palestinian lawyer Tareq Barghout for alleged involvement in terrorist activity in Ramallah, 2019. (credit: Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images) SECURITY FORCES arrest Palestinian lawyer Tareq Barghout for alleged involvement in terrorist activity in Ramallah, 2019. (credit: Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images)

The two major public events the agency held in March and in July provide clues, and interviews and other unique access that the Post has had with Shin Bet officials provide some other information.

In March, the Shin Bet took the unprecedented step of hosting a semi-public event, telling the story of how it established its “garage” for tech start-ups four years ago and unveiling its future tech-vision.

Speaking virtually to the Cybertech conference in Tel Aviv, Shin Bet Director Ronen Bar said, “We strongly believe in innovation inside the Israeli intelligence community. We are glad to imagine investors, entrepreneurs and partners.”

Referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, then still in its early period, he said, “Though unfortunately we still see tanks approaching Kyiv these days, we all wish the war will be over soon, but we all know that modern warfare is based on innovation.”

The Shin Bet chief stated, “Innovation has two different meanings. The internal one describes the ability to give [opportunities to] all the young Israel Security Agency employees and [outside] entrepreneurs who have great ideas but for whom it is difficult to promote in a conservative and traditional workplace.

“The external meaning has an ongoing process. It is not just technology built in the intelligence community but in start-ups meant for other means... improvements which may be suitable for our needs.” 

“The external meaning has an ongoing process. It is not just technology built in the intelligence community but in start-ups meant for other means... improvements which may be suitable for our needs.”

Ronen Bar

This distinction between two kinds of innovation is an important theme for Bar and other senior Shin Bet officials involved in innovation efforts.

Its “external” innovation efforts are a bit easier to track than its internal ones, since in the two events in March and July, the Shin Bet unveiled the names and capabilities of quite a few start-ups it is working with.

Going back to some of the examples at the start of the article, such as thwarting any Chinese surveillance of Ashdod Port, it could be relevant to consider the Shin Bet’s introduction in March of Conbo, which uses artificial intelligence to analyze maritime forensics at ports.

From a national security perspective, the Shin Bet may be using its technology or similar technologies to prevent Chinese or other foreign surveillance of ports.

At the March event, which was open to the public, the Shin Bet chief of the garage, who is referred to as Ido, also spoke to the select crowd of cyber experts and entrepreneurs.

Ido said, “Four years ago, we realized we were missing out on you guys... some of the brilliant technological minds are in Israel dealing with technological challenges.”

He said that the intelligence agency decided that it wanted to take advantage of the “Israeli start-up ecosystem and... moved from risk management to opportunity management – we opened our gates.”

They decided to call the Shin Bet’s initiative for start-ups “the garage,” evoking Apple, Google and Amazon, which were initially founded by a small number of individuals in their garages or similarly modest locations.

Ido said the Shin Bet wanted “to help start-ups get out of their garages to the outer world.”

But then he asked a key question: “Why would a start-up even want to work with the Shin Bet, and what would be in it for us? The Shin Bet needed to create a win-win situation” for both the agency and the start-ups.

Noting that his agency had found synergies with start-ups working on technologies for human resources, video analytics and many others, Ido said that through the agency these start-ups got to “try out their own technology” and that “no early start-up could have access to these kinds of resources [provided by the Shin Bet] at early stages” of their development.

The agency decided that “the garage could not act like a bureaucratic entity. It needed to have a start-up’s DNA, to be agile and as fast as them,” Ido explained.

 FLYING DRONE camera in Gaza City.  (credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90) FLYING DRONE camera in Gaza City. (credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)

So after the Shin Bet’s relationship with such businesses at their initial stage, these businesses are positioned to also have a dual-use civilian purpose for which they can thrive economically afterwards.

In mid-September, Conbo pushed its product more into the public sphere.

At the civilian level, it may be used to address new challenges that ports are now being forced to address. For example, the pandemic, post-pandemic and post-Russia invasion of Ukraine era have at times led to complete halts of factories, the shutdown of ships due to missing crews and, in recent months, unprecedented traffic jams in ports.

Each of these problems has severely damaged the global supply chains, leading to a situation where most of the goods are stuck in transitions from ships to land operations.

This can create major inventory problems, price increases, and ratchet up general economic uncertainty.

Seaports, which are the gateway to many of the above-mentioned goods, are heavy on old-school physical operations and have struggled with transitioning to the digital world.

ERAN PEREG, CEO and co-founder of Conbo, has said that more than 90% of the port terminals in the world have not transitioned to the new concepts of the Digital Twin, which facilitate a leap into the new world of data-driven operations.

“While in most industries the bottleneck is information analysis, in the logistics sites that are important to our economy the problem arises with the lack of information collection, not only its analysis,” said Pereg.

A small minority of ports incorporate new technologies for the collection of information with the help of cutting-edge hardware products, such as RFID (radio frequency identification) systems; LPR (license plate recognition) systems; and location sensors on vehicles; however, the available solutions are still complex and expensive to implement.

Conbo, which was first exposed to the public in March and then stepped up its open campaign in September, provides a system to ports for managing traffic in their territory, while relying on existing cameras, which would normally be used only for security purposes.

In March, Ido presented statistics that the Shin Bet had funded 33 start-ups and was still engaged with 18 of them after the initial program, saying this showed a fantastic more-than-50% success rate.

In addition, he said that start-ups involved in what was typically an initial four-month program had later raised more than $150 million. The Post has learned that this number now exceeds $200m.

In July, Bar presented in Ashkelon a rare look at five hi-tech companies that will be dedicated to the agency’s combat with Hamas, especially in the South, vis-à-vis Gaza and the Sinai.

Unlike the March event, this event was semi-public, with the Post being the only media outlet in physical attendance.

This time, Bar attended in person, where he made a number of remarks about the agency’s capabilities and its work with other security agencies and private companies, which the Post cannot divulge.

Still, the event was a platform for the Shin Bet to expose its latest efforts through its technology garage to fund and integrate private sector technology companies to help with its war against terror.

Bar said, “The national power of Israel – what do we have?.... The integration between people and technological potential. We call this innovation. It is not surprising that for the US president, they strongly present to him Israeli technology. Our neighborhood is not the most sympathetic. We need to always be prepared. I am very happy with the cooperation between the Shin Bet and the civilian sector.”

The Shin Bet chief said it was critical to give his talented agents room to grow and to find solutions for anti-terror issues that they encounter in the field – even if it means finding the answers in the private sector.

“G.,” who oversees Ido and the Shin Bet’s technology division, along with other manpower issues, explained that “dozens of start-ups applied. We chose five for the first class of the Ashkelon Shin Bet technology accelerator. This is a natural and integral part of the Shin Bet’s work. There is fast-paced change, and we need to be ready for future challenges.”

G.’s remarks were not made fully public, but the Post spoke to G. and was given other access to the points he presented.

Next, G. said, “The Shin Bet needs to recreate itself from scratch from time to time, and it is good that it does. In the security situation which is ever changing at such a rapid pace that it brings complex security tasks to our doorstep, we need innovation, development to maximize our capabilities, diverse ways of thinking and action and to invent ourselves anew every day.

“We took on the freedom of action to experiment and even fail, based on faith that we will succeed. Only this kind of daring empowers innovation. Innovation grows from everywhere and is not merely the inheritance of the younger generation and is not limited to technology between us,” he said.

According to the official, “Innovation is the ability to adapt yourself, as an individual and as an organization, to free yourself from a [product] seller’s wrappings, from the known and existing encumbrances and to allow yourself to adopt being more open and fine-tuned.”

G. especially highlighted how critical it was for this second extension point in Ashkelon of the Tel Aviv area garage to be located in the South.

He said this allowed the start-ups to have more efficient direct interactions with Shin Bet operations people in the field and to see up close what adjustments and customized moves would be needed for the clandestine agency to maximize use of any new start-up concept.

At the same July event, Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern said that frequently, intelligence agencies worldwide make the mistake that they think they know everything.

Stern posited that the Shin Bet rises above this blind spot, and that part of its positive impact is that it knows that it is talented and creative, as well as that “we don’t have everything. Sometimes there are ideas from the outside.”

The Shin Bet, the Intelligence Ministry and the SOSA HLStech Innovation Hub, which is the main civilian sector bridge for the five companies that were unveiled in July, are the key partners in Ashkelon.

The domestic spy agency’s embrace of these other two partners in a deeper way to establish the Ashkelon extension is another sign of how open its operations in this arena have become.

LIKE THE start-ups it is helping the Shin Bet vet for suitability, SOSA is also a private sector business, which has existed since 2014.

Getting to know SOSA a bit also helps to understand what the Shin Bet is up to with its start-ups initiative.

In a blog post about the “metaverse,” SOSA writes, “Today the metaverse still seems like an online amusement park for games and something similar to what we once knew from SimCity. Pixelated sidewalks and flashing neon signs for shoe stores and diners, a place to escape reality. However, it is becoming the new normal sooner than later, a step up from the average web-surfing experience, kicking it up a notch.”

“In 2021, the global metaverse market size stood at $38.85 billion. In 2022, this is expected to rise to $47.48 billion before surging to $678.8b. by 2030. The growth over the decade is 17.5 times,” said SOSA.

According to SOSA, “‍As the metaverse becomes an alternate reality, we will create, own, store, buy and sell digital assets. This, in turn, will attract businesses to dive right into it, harnessing it as new geography to research, explore, and stake their claim.

“At the other end of the spectrum, even more significantly, businesses will be able to create, promote and grow customer interaction,” SOSA explained.

What all of this means for SOSA and the Shin Bet is that the start-up vetting agency is diving into the metaverse before that market matures, anticipating sub-markets and developments that may be multiple moves or years down the business chess board in order to stay ahead.

As G. said in July, this may lead to some failures and errors along the way, as no one really understands exactly how and in which directions the metaverse will become a gigantic success and where it will flop.

But by having several seeds in the game, SOSA, and in the national security arena, the Shin Bet, has the opportunity to be closer to the new trends than an old school intelligence agency, which may still be stuck fighting the last conflict and defending against old terror tactics.

Flyz Robotics

One of the five start-ups the Shin Bet announced it would fund in July was Flyz Robotics.

The start-up is an aerial dynamic sensor installation system that enables its Dorbot (a 250 gr. robot) to perch on vertical walls or “leave a wide range of sensors on such walls to provide a live video stream, open communication network and sense things in a single click for hours\days, without leaving any residue.

“While current public cameras are static and limited to a fixed narrow field of view, drones are not utilized as a sufficient replacement for cameras due to their  short service time. Drobot system bypasses battery constraints and serves for a longer time than a heavier drone,” the marketing material explained.

There are at least two clear advantages to using Flyz Robotics drones and to using them from Ashkelon.

First, the drones can provide much longer surveillance because their concept is to land and blend in with their surroundings while maintaining surveillance. In contrast, most surveillance drones must be frequently replaced because they are flying and continuously burning fuel.

Flyz Robotics said its drones can stay on task 10 times longer than most competitors’ surveillance drones.

In addition, drones that lift off from Shin Bet headquarters and the Tel Aviv area have farther to fly in both directions, using up valuable fuel and surveillance time. Drones taking off from Ashkelon can be in the field dealing with Hamas in Gaza in practically no time at all.

Finally, Flyz Robotics can instantaneously switch from providing video footage to utilizing a range of sensors to detect a number of actors and activities. Flyz Robotics is led by Ran Shafran, who attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel during 15 years in IDF intelligence 

Part of what the Shin Bet wants to do with the Tel Aviv area garage and the Ashkelon accelerator extension is to send a message to its employees that their new radical ideas matter, can receive backing and can go somewhere.

For Bar, G., Ido and all the other officials involved in the strategic and tactical races against Iran, Hamas and others, encouraging this attitude itself could be as crucial as developing new key technologies. 