The Story of Israel’s First Cyberwarfare Operation

November 1, 2022 | Yoav Zitun
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Today, the Jewish state leads the world in its defensive and offensive cyberwarfare capabilities, and the IDF’s prestigious 8200 Unit is considered the destination of choice for young Israelis aspiring to careers in high-tech. But in the early 1990s, when Israel carried out its first digital operation, such an infrastructure did not exist, and “cyberwarfare” wasn’t in the vocabulary of militaries. The soldier responsible for the operation, identified only as Second Lieutenant B.—after his rank at the time—spoke with Yoav Zitun about what happened, although many of the details remain classified:

Second Lieutenant B. . . . was part of a small team in charge of drawing up a plan that would be the first of its kind in the IDF—secretly infiltrating a stronghold of one of Israel’s enemies and gaining access to a substantial intelligence source. This operation allowed Israel to get its hands on information that would remain useful years later, without sending a single soldier to risk his or her life, and all while remaining under the radar.

Instead of waiting for a bug in the enemy’s cyber system and “breaking in” during the short time window, the tactic the IDF had adopted prior, Lieutenant B. and his team wanted to enter through a blind spot [in digital security], take what they needed, and “exit” before they could be noticed. The target they were after at the time was one of five most wanted for the Intelligence Directorate.

Already as a young trainee, B. was plotting a largescale intel mission that none of the higher-ranking officers were aware of. “Nothing good ever comes out of closing a bunch of colonels and lieutenant colonels in a room and telling them to solve a problem,” he said. “All the good ideas, even in years past, came from lower ranks.” The new system the enemy was developing made B. understand that innovative tactics had to be brought up in order to collect data—and immediately he started brainstorming technological models.

For two whole years, B. and a few of his comrades recreated the system the enemy had at hand at the time, running endless tests to make sure what they had developed was accurate. The biggest concern was that they would get caught by the enemy, and someone on the other side of the screen would “turn off the lights forever,” and seal the data with a break-proof security system. . . . Since then, the tech gateway that B. and his team created has grown to be more advanced, and paved the way for other IDF cyber operations.

The operation succeeded, and the still-anonymous B. was awarded the Israel Defense Prize for his efforts.

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