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Micah D. Halpern Headshot

The Tech Geeks Are Israel's War Heroes

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The Israel Defense Forces, the IDF, is making significant hardware cuts. The story was reported on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and in other papers around the country.

They are preparing for a different kind of warfare than the warfare that propelled Israel's defense forces to fame and notoriety these past 65 years. They are scaling back on what was once the backbone of the military -- big ticket items such as fighter jets and tanks without forsaking the security of their country.

Budget cuts have impacted the Israeli military and almost every army in the world. Israel, however, is one of the few countries to go public with the announcement. They did it not as a show of weakness, they did it as a show of strength. They simultaneously announced cut backs and highlighted their commitment to new offensive and defensive military technology. The future of war is high tech.

And so the Israeli Army presented a merit award to Unit 8200 recently.

At first glance it is not such a big deal -- until you realize that Unit 8200 is an intelligence unit. This not just any unit. 8200 is the largest single unit in the Israel army. It is composed of thousands of soldiers. Its main base is called Urim and is located somewhere in the Negev desert, about 20 minutes from the city of Beersheba.

Unit 8200 was created in 1952. It is actually called "Shmoneh Mataayim" which in English translates to "Eight Two Hundred." There are many sub units within 8200. No one in one unit knows what others are doing in another unit -- or even in their own unit. Part of 8200 collects intelligence and monitors the news, that section is called "Chatzav."

You would think it almost impossible to keep a secret when so many thousands of people are affiliated -- but everything is compartmentalized and everyone is extremely secretive. Across the world IDF Unit 8200 is officially referred to as the Central Collection Unit of the Israeli Army's Intelligence Corps.

Sometimes it is just called "The Israelis." 8200 has become a cabal, a mythical power with supernatural powers.

But 8200 also creates and attacks. Members of the unit work closely with the Americans and it was probably 8200 which created Stuxnet, the virus that attacked Iran's nuclear enrichment program. 8200 is probably also responsible for W32. Flame which attacked Iran's oil pumping system and closed it down.

Above all else, Unit 8200 is a group of hackers, thousands of hackers. And they are competing with the Chinese and the Russians.

They are probably the largest, or at least, one of the largest listening bases in the world. Being in the desert helps -- the skies are clearer with less interruption and they can listen to almost everyone everywhere. Unit 8200 tracks people, cars, ships, almost anything that moves. They are connected via satellite and have covert listening stations across the world.

In this era of budget cuts, which means fewer planes and fewer tanks, money is being spent on high tech weaponry. Computers are cheaper than tanks and F-16s. And they have done some remarkable work.

We will never know all that Unit 8200 and other similar units around the world have done. But we do know that we live in a world of intelligence gathering and games of war. And in Israel, computer geeks have become military heroes.

In giving this award Israel is saying "todah" or "thank you" to Unit 8200. And they are saying "beware" to their enemies.