Defense Ministry working to turn high schoolers into cybersecurity wonks

The program at Ort High School Holon helps to develop the next generation of online soldiers for what is one of the IDF’s highest demanded units.

C4i Branch's Cyber Control Center (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
C4i Branch's Cyber Control Center
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
In its quest for top cyber talent, the IDF is conducting training at the high school level for the Intelligence Corps’s prestigious Unit 8200 Central Collection group.
The program at Ort High School Holon helps to develop the next generation of online soldiers for what is one of the IDF’s most in demand units. Unit 8200 alumni are responsible for much of Israel’s breakthrough technology and are the go-to recruitment pool for hi-tech companies seeking top talent.
Israel has several incubators for cyber talent and in February launched the National Center for Cyber Education to increase the pool of recruits.
But four years earlier, the IDF turned to the Education Ministry with a special request: to help identify high school students for technology and intelligence units. ORT Holon answered the call and began to develop its cyber track.
A year and a half later, about 20 10th grade students with high cyber abilities, and able to cope challenges and pressure, were chosen to spearhead the track at ORT Holon.
“The big challenge is to take children – who are both good and serious – and to encourage creativity in them,” said Sonia Shamai, the coordinator of the cyber track at ORT Holon. One of the main goals is to encourage students to learn on their own.
“We teach them data communication, programming, the dangers of the Internet world and how to defend themselves against them, but mainly we teach them to think, to be creative and to solve problems on their own,” Shamai said.
At the end first year of the track, representatives from Lockheed Martin and the University of Maryland visited the school, and testified that the products made by students were at the level of second year university students.
The Education Ministry’s Gvahim or “Heights” program, which runs the “Cyber Protection” track in the framework of software engineering in high schools and leads to a five-year matriculation certificate, constructs the Holon curriculum and provides teaching assistants who accompany students throughout the program.
While hi-tech workers accompany the teachers in the program and serve as teaching assistants, graduates of Unit 8200 also assist the students, telling them of their experience in the IDF and the possibilities the hi-tech industry has to offer once they finish their service.
“In order for children to feel that they can change the world and leave a mark, they need to get good tools – technical, mental and motivational – at an early stage,” said Kfir Damari, a graduate of 8200, who teaches cyber programs for teens and is a member of the ROI community of activists and change makers.
“The cyber program makes it possible to reach students and strengthen their tools and motivation. Programming is one of the first tools, but it is not enough. In order to approach the challenges facing soldiers in military service, there is much more to know than just programming. This program provides the platform for creative thinking and problem solving,” Damari said.
While taking part in the Holon program does not automatically lead to Unit 8200, several graduates of the track have joined technological units of the Intelligence and IT Corps. Other students decided to defer their entry into the IDF and continue their studies at ORT College in Holon, assigned to a programming course of the IDF Academy of Computer Sciences or the “Projectents” track of the Intelligence Corps, the IT Corps and the air force.
Regarded as Israel’s equivalent of the US National Security Agency, Unit 8200 intercepts and collects digital communication and intelligence on Israel’s enemies. Once soldiers finish their service, many move on to the hi-tech and cyber security industries, with some founding large and successful companies.
According to Damari, “The encounter of soldiers from the cyber units with the students inspires and motivates the students. These are role models who are not reality stars. This is not only in the interest of the army but of society as a whole as these students will eventually integrate into civilian industry. It opens a door to a lifetime career.”