IDF steps up battle against brain drain

A group of Israel Defense Force cyber cadets during a training exercise. Credit: IDF.

Graduates of the IDF’s famed Unit 8200 are often at the forefront of Israel’s high-tech industry—and industry headhunters often stop at nothing to lure members of the unit into the private sector.

The Israeli military is stepping up its efforts to prevent proprietary technology and abilities from finding their way to civilian high-tech firms, Israel Hayom has learned.

As part of the battle against brain drain, IDF Military Intelligence’s elite Unit 8200, which is responsible for collecting signals intelligence and code decryption, recently began having its reservists sign nondisclosure agreements and conflict of interest disclosures in an attempt to limit what has come to be an almost natural move of top human capital from the military to the civilian technology and defense industries.

Unit 8200 graduates are often at the forefront of Israel’s high-tech industry. Many have established or were hired by tech companies that went on to develop groundbreaking software, hardware, and other products and solutions based on the capabilities developed by the Military Intelligence Directorate.

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Moreover, high-tech industry headhunters often stop at nothing to lure Unit 8200 personnel away from a military career path and into the private sector. This is true especially for private companies that specialize in cyber-defense technology.

Headhunters often refer to the military intelligence personnel as “diamonds”—officers or soldiers who have unique skill sets or expertise. Last year, one major company even contracted the use of a billboard outside Unit 8200’s headquarters to run an ad reading, “We usually hunt down the enemy. Now we are out for talent. Join us.”

The unabashed attempt to poach IDF personnel vexed the unit’s commanders, who had
the billboard—not just that ad—removed from the area.

The IDF’s efforts to counter talent-poaching were significantly stepped up after that incident. This included refining the guidelines and norms Unit 8200 soldiers, officers and reservists are expected to uphold, especially with regard to the migration of unique expertise to the private sector.

“Unit 8200 embodies state-level capabilities and expertise. It is inconceivable that such capabilities be allowed to just leave here without the proper authorization,” a senior intelligence officer told Israel Hayom.

In a letter sent to all Unit 8200 personnel last year, the division’s deputy commander, Col. A., wrote, “Several reports in the media suggest that recently, some of the unit’s graduates have been selling information, methodology, and knowledge to which they were exposed during their service. This suggests immoral, unethical, and greedy conduct.”

“During your service, you are exposed to highly classified information and you are expected to find applicable solutions to exceedingly complex issues, often deemed impossible to solve. Many of our successes are based on unique methods to which the outside world is not privy.”

“Unit 8200 graduates are obligated to uphold and maintain the secrecy of the intelligence, technological and operational methods to which they have been exposed during their military service,” he stated, stressing that “by law, no information, ability, method, or technological product developed in the unit may be disclosed.”

Col A. commended unit graduates for their contribution to Israel’s high-tech industry,
which has earned it the nickname “start-up nation,” but cautioned them against facing
“any conflict of interest with regard to the intimate knowledge they have gained during their service and their civilian pursuits.”

Unit 8200 graduates, he wrote, “are not allowed to use, be it directly or indirectly, any of the methods, abilities or sensitive information to which they were made privy during their service; and to act responsibly and report any incident where they suspect any activity does not coincide with our values and ethics.”

The private sector, however, remains eager to recruit Unit 8200 personnel away from the IDF, creating a problem in terms of using unit reservists employed in the high-tech and defense industries.

“This situation raises a potential conflict of interest between the nature of the reserve service and the reservists’ work in these companies,” said A. “It further fosters a real concern that information will leak [to the private sector] and can jeopardize capabilities that underpin the unit’s operation.

“Reservists should be called up to [deal with] issues that do not create potential conflicts of interest with their civilian occupations. … During active reserve service, the unit must ensure reservists have controlled access only to relevant issues. Not everyone who is called up can be automatically exposed to the unit’s capabilities.”

About two months ago Unit 8200 also began ordering its reservists to sign nondisclosure agreements and conflict of interest disclosures.

“Most reservists were surprised by this new protocol but so far none have refused to sign [the forms]. After all, it protects both parties,” a top unit official said.

Unit officials underscored that the current moves are not intended to wage war on the private sector or the domestic or international high-tech industries, but still leveled scathing criticism at the moves employed by some companies.

According to one Unit 8200 officer, Israeli companies in particular use highly aggressive recruitment methods, predominantly monetary ones, to lure unit personnel away. “Local companies have much lower ethical standards than their international counterparts,” he said.

“Imagine if [Israeli flag carrier] El Al would try to poach an IAF fighter pilot, or if a civilian firm would poach a battalion commander in the middle of a war? That’s what’s going on here and it’s morally wrong.”

“Some normative lines cannot be crossed. When someone graduates the service companies can freely approach them. But they have no business coming after those who are in active service. That’s tantamount to jeopardizing national security.”

(JNS / Israel Hayom).



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