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Israel's secret intel unit spawns high-tech tycoons
by Staff Writers
Tel Aviv, Israel (UPI) Sep 9, 2013

Thousands rally in Berlin to protest NSA Internet surveillance
Berlin (UPI) Sep 10, 2013 - Thousands of Germans opposed to government surveillance of Internet users gathered in Berlin during the weekend in the what organizers called the largest anti-spying protest of its kind.

Organizers of the "Freedom Not Fear" event pegged the turnout in Berlin's Alexanderplatz at 20,000 throughout Saturday's protest, during which speakers denounced the U.S. National Security Agency and Britain's GCHQ program of sifting through databases of people's email, online chat and Internet browsing histories without prior court authorization.

Other crowd estimates varied, from the official police estimate of 4,800, to 15,000 reported by Der Spiegel. Protesters carried signs reading "Anonymity is not a crime," "Monitoring destroyed democracy" and "Freedom of the press needs information protection."

Organized by 80 sponsors -- including civil society groups, trade unions, the Chaos Computer Club and the FDP, Left, Green and the Pirate parties -- the event was hailed by its backers as a "huge success" as speakers called to abolish German cooperation in the NSA monitoring of cellphone call data and online searches.

Speakers called for the defeat of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Sept. 22 federal elections. The NSA spying scandal has become a key issue in the run-up to the election, with Merkel's conservatives still leading at the polls.

Ronald Pofalla, Merkel's chief of staff, insisted last month the U.S.-British data searches are not contrary to German laws designed to protect privacy and fears of mass data scans were unfounded, saying, "In Germany there are no infringements of fundamental rights by the millions, as has been continuously, falsely alleged."

U.S. Internet activist Jacob Appelbaum spoke at the start of the demonstration and was interrupted repeatedly by cheers as he called on Germans to defend themselves against surveillance, the weekly Die Zeit reported.

"You need to kick out the Merkel government," he said, while also apologizing to the German crowd for the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama for allowing the NSA program to continue.

Gerd Billen of the Federation of Consumer Organizations stressed the importance of fighting against surveillance and translating the outrage into action.

"It's about our right to self-determination," he told the crowd. "This fundamental right is trampled underfoot every day."

Blogger Anne Roth called on attendees to fight the feeling of powerlessness, telling them they can do something against surveillance.

"We need secure software that is easy to use," she said. "It's the job of the federal government to ensure that our fundamental rights are protected, but that isn't happening."

Kai-Uwe Steffens of the Working Group Against Data Retention passionately criticized intelligence agencies such as the NSA over "unrestrained spying on phone calls and Internet traffic worldwide," and denounced the German government for remaining idle, Deutsche-Welle reported.

"This affair will be finished on the day when we are no longer monitored, and not a day earlier," he said.

The German Green Party has called for European Court of Justice proceedings against Britain over the spying allegations and has urged European Union Council of Ministers to suspend ongoing negotiations on a free trade agreement with the United States until there is further clarification on the scope of the data sifting.

The Israeli military's top-secret Unit 8200, the Jewish state's equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency, has spawned a generation of high-tech start-ups and more technology millionaires than many business schools, and these days the cyber security sector is booming.

Unit 8200 is now the Israeli military's biggest branch in manpower terms. It has grown swiftly in recent years as cyberwarfare has become one of the major security threats to military organizations and industrialized states whose vital infrastructure is vulnerable to cyberattack.

But Unit 8200 remains the most secretive of Israel's military units. Even the name of its commander is a state secret, as is its annual budget .

It has a major, highly secure base in the Negev Desert south of Tel Aviv. But little is known about its work in what's known as signals intelligence, intercepting and analyzing other forces' communications and data traffic from mobile phones chatter and emails to flight paths and electronic signals.

Unlike other branches of the Israeli military, virtually all its research and development is conducted in-house by its huge cadre of engineers, programmers and technicians.

Unit 8200 headhunts the brightest students from high schools and colleges, and there seems to be no shortage of volunteers.

So it's no surprise that many veterans of Unit 8200 -- invariably known as "eight-two hundred" -- have been behind a host of successful high-tech start-ups in the commercial sector after they leave the service.

These enterprises provide a unique contribution to Israel's high-tech sector, widely recognized as one of the most advanced in the world.

The country's high-tech exports total an estimated $25 billion a year, a quarter of Israel's exports.

The high-tech sector currently boasts 5,000 companies that employ 230,000 people and earn

Recent Israeli success in the field include the Zisapel brothers, Yehuda and Zonhar, who sold and floated a dozen companies for hundreds of millions of dollars; and Yair Cohen, a former brigadier general who once commanded Unit 8200, who heads the intelligence cyberdivision of Elbit Systems, a major defense company.

Then there's Aharon Zeevi Farkash, another former Unit 8200 chief, founder and chief executive of FST21, which employs a mix of technologies, combining hardware and software to suit specific needs that are in the hands of young men and women hardly out of their teens.

Yossi Vardi, who founded Israel's first software company in 1969, says "more high-tech millionaires have been created from 8200 than from any business school in the country."

Israeli tech firms like Nice, Converse and Check Point were all set up by Unit 8200 alumni or based on technology developed by the unit which cyber insiders say is in some cases decades ahead of the U.S. and Europe

A measure of these companies' success is that many are bought out by the titans of the field.

IBM announced in August that it's buying Trusteer, a privately owned Israeli cloud-based cybersecurity software provider whose customers include many of the largest banks in the United States and Britain.

The terms of the deal have not been disclosed. But the Financial Times reported that IBM, which will form a cybersecurity software laboratory in Israel with more than 200 researchers from both companies, is believed to be forking up $800 million-$1 billion for Trusteer.

The Israeli outfit says its equipment can identify security threats that escape more traditional security software.

Trusteer software is designed to help ensure that bank customers can safely transfer funds on mobile devices by detecting malware that can infect a smartphone, allowing the bank to prevent fraudulent transactions taking place.

"The way organizations protect data are quickly evolving," observed Trusteer's chief executive, Mickey Boodaei, who founded the firm in 2006.

"As attacks become more sophisticated, traditional approaches to securing enterprise and mobile data are no longer valid."

Unit 8200's success as an incubator for Israel's high-tech venture is likely to grow since under the military's new strategic plan it's downsizing conventional land, sea and air forces to meet the challenges of a new era of warfare with more agile, technology-oriented forces.

Farkash says 8200's alumni are so successful because its organizational ethos encourages out-of-the-box thinking.

"We're very tolerant of mistakes," he explains. "It's impossible to be creative when fear leads you."


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