Ex-IDF intelligence soldiers may be aiding Israel's enemies - journalist

Alumni of the 8200 Unit, which develops hacking tech, are high profile targets for foreign regimes wanting to exploit Israeli expertise for their own gain.

People pose in front of a display showing the word 'cyber' in binary code, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica (photo credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS)
People pose in front of a display showing the word 'cyber' in binary code, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica
(photo credit: DADO RUVIC/REUTERS)
Alumni of Israel's Intelligence Corps 8200 cyber hacking unit may be unwittingly working against Israel by taking their expertise abroad, investigative journalist Ronen Bergman said on the Two Nice Jewish Boys podcast.
The 8200 intelligence unit comprises more than 10,000 IDF soldiers, making it larger than security agencies the Mossad or Shin Bet. Along with its sister unit, a military intelligence technology unit, the two are responsible for developing and utilizing technologies which make it possible to discover and exploit programming flaws. These technologies are known as 'Zero Days,' and are able to hack technologies ranging from mobile phones to nuclear reactors in order to collect intelligence or to sabotage the technology, according to foreign reports.
Israel has invested heavily in such capabilities, nurturing young people while still at school to develop the sort of computer know-how required for such work, and identifying individuals capable of carrying it out. They are then recruited into the unit where they undertake the compulsory military service, followed by two or more years as a professional soldier, honing their hacking capabilities.
The experience of being intensively trained in this way means that Israel has the best offensive and defensive cyber experts in the world. But it is a double-edged sword for the Jewish State as once their service is up the operatives are free to leverage their knowledge worldwide - including against Israel's interests.
Israel has attempted to get around this problem by heavily regulating the use of such expertise within its shores. Israeli companies wishing to develop and sell hacking products such as the Pegasus spyware are overseen by the Ministry of Defense, who license the products and rule on which countries they can be sold to.
Even here there are problems - while countries have purchased such software to help catch pedophiles, human traffickers, and terrorists, there have also been cases of regimes using the tech against human rights activists, leading to criticisms of Israel's licensing process.
But Israeli journalist Bergman, who has investigated this area heavily, says the problems don't stop there.
"Once these cyber experts leave Israel and work for non-Israeli companies, then whatever you say about the supervision and the regime of inspection by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, it's not there," he told the Two Nice Jewish Boys podcast. "Meaning, if [the oversight in Israel is] too weak, not rigid enough, not strict enough, not severe enough - it's nothing when they are outside of Israel."
The expertise of the military veterans makes them prime recruiting targets for foreign operatives with a lot of money to invest in cyber security, as Bergman explained: "Young veterans of 8200, offensive cyber experts who are the target for headhunters who are saying to them: "look, you can earn maybe 70-100,000 shekels in Israel a month working for Israeli companies doing offensive cyber, but if you go abroad to where I, the headhunter, invite you, you will have a full relocation, a view of the sea, and up to 100,000 dollars excluding bonuses a month."
"Just imagine, that guy is 23 years old, 25 ... these are excellent, extremely smart people but not very mature; they need to be very strong to say no. And some of them didn't."
He highlights a recent case in which employees of the Israeli private firm NSO group, who developed the Pegasus spyware among other phone hacking technologies, were found by management to be suddenly leaving for unconvincing reasons. The workers had been good workers making good money, so management decided to find out why they were leaving and hired private detectives, who followed the workers to Cyprus.
It transpired that they had been headhunted by a private firm called Dark Matter, which is the commercial cyber wing of the National Electronic Security Authority (NESA) - the United Arab Emirate's version of the National Security Agency (NSA).
The UAE had purchased Pegasus and used it many times, but in addition to the market price, Pegasus is sold on a token model, meaning that the UAE was having to pay each time they wanted to use it. In the end, they opted to create their own product, by recruiting the Israeli manpower required to develop it.
The UAE doesn't have diplomatic relations with Israel, but it does have under-the-radar contact, liaising where required to move against common enemies. However, technologies developed by the UAE could easily fall into third party hands where it could eventually make its way to regimes such as Iran, who could use it against Israel's interests.
"I don't think it's treason, I don't think these people are treacherous," Bergman said, referring to the Israelis who are taking their expertise abroad. "I think they are nonchalant, and that they give themselves explanations of why this is OK, why this is legal."
Technically, what the workers are doing isn't illegal, as they are not using knowledge of specific Zero Days weaknesses discovered within the 8200 unit to benefit the private companies. But Bergman says the question isn't just one of legality.
"The legality is not the only thing that counts. I think that 8200 maybe failed to educate these people not just how to hack a computer or mainframe or nuclear reactor or a phone but also to educate them they are holding strategic tools, and these strategic tools should be preserved in Israeli hands only and be exported only when Israel allows it. I think that these people are looking the other way from the very dangerous possibilities that much of their knowledge, much of these strategic tools would be proliferated to other parts of the world and God knows what will happen."