For hack contest winners, a ticket into Unit 8200

Here’s how the IDF ensures it recruits Israel’s best and brightest for intelligence gathering and cyber-defense

Tovy Stupp (L) with members of the winning Gvahim cyber-defense contest team (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Tovy Stupp (L) with members of the winning Gvahim cyber-defense contest team (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Serving in the IDF’s prestigious Unit 8200 — the army’s intelligence gathering unit — is, to judge from the results, almost a guarantee of tech success in the Start-Up Nation. Graduates of the unit, which is on the front lines of Israel’s cyber-defense efforts, have gone on to create dozens of start-ups, many of them in the cyber-security business.

But to graduate from 8200, you have to get in first – and to do that, you have to show IDF brass that you have what it takes to not only defend a system from a hack attack, but to get into your rival’s system as well. That was the mission given to students in the cybertech program at ten schools participating in a just-finished Unit 8200-sponsored contest – with the winners turning out to be a group of 15 and 16 year olds, the youngest group participating in the event.

“Now these kids are on the ‘short list’ for being recruited to 8200,” said Tovy Stupp, director of the cybertech academic program at Amal Lady Davis High School in Tel Aviv. “It’s good for the army, because they now have more candidates for what has become an essential part of Israel’s defense system, and great for the kids, who have dreams of being IDF ‘cyber heroes.’”

In 2012, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared cyber-defense a priority, and that included boosting efforts to recruit more tech personnel for the IDF. To that end, the army opened two programs – Gvahim, a training program for high school students in the center of the country, and Magshimim, which concentrates on training students in the periphery. The objective of both programs is to train students in the skills they will need to protect the country’s data infrastructure from the incessant hack attacks Israel faces daily.

As part of the effort to provide students with cyber-skills, the Education Ministry last year implemented a special study track in cyber-science. Currently operating in ten high schools (Stupp said that over the coming years the program would be expanded to many others), the track teaches kids programming, network management, systems design and administration, and hacking and defense skills.

It was in those ten schools that the IDF ran a hacking contest, in which students were required to build a bot (an automated program) designed to attack “enemy” servers, while defending their own servers from attack. Teams competed with each other within schools, and the winners of those contests were pitted against each other.

When the smoke cleared, it was the 11th grade class at Tel Aviv’s Lady Davis High School that had the best bot – an especially sweet victory for the kids, Stupp said, because all the other teams consisted of 12th graders. “Even better,” said Stupp, “was the fact that one of 8200 guides who were working with the group brought his own bot, and the kids’ system beat it too.”

“For the kids, of course, it’s a great experience,” said Stupp. “But it also makes sense for the army, which wants to know in advance that it is getting the cream of the crop for its top units.” With all the competition between elite units for elite soldiers, getting a chance to potentially recruit kids for 8200 while they are still in high school is a good way to channel talent that the state needs in the right direction. “Unlike many teens, they can sit for many hours, working on a project and doing something super-smart, and having a great time as well,” added Stupp. “It’s an amazing thing to watch.”

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