Gal Londe, Alona Haimov and Edo Nahman, all high school students, in one of Israel's new cyber-classrooms in the city of Holon learn not only how the Internet operates, but also how hackers steal data and disrupt systems. (William Booth/The Washington Post)

There are a lot of secrets kept in Israel’s intelligence community, but this is not one of them: Israel aims to become a cybersecurity superpower, and to do that, the Israeli military is launching an ambitious program to groom the next generation of cyberwarriors while they are still in high school.

The little Jewish state that prides itself on the sobriquet “Start-up Nation” has set cyber­security as a national goal, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a prominent cheerleader.

Netanyahu sees cyberspace as both Israel’s new frontier and new front line. The prime minister wants Israel not only to have the best military wonks in the world, but also to partner Israel’s high-tech military with the country’s venture capitalists and young computer talent to offer clients defensive strategies against the kind of hack attacks that have hit eBay and Target, South Korean banks and Google in China.

At a September conference here devoted to cybersecurity, Netanyahu described the Israeli military’s cyber units as locked in battle with “hacktivists” and state-sponsored actors, such as Iran, in daily duels that take place in dark rooms in front of computer screens.

The Israeli leader said the cyber-fight reached a peak during the 50-day Gaza war this summer.

The cyberattacks included attempts to disrupt the country’s electricity and enter systems guarded by the Israel Defense Forces. A group calling itself the Syrian Electronic Army hacked into the Twitter account of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit and falsely claimed that Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor was “leaking” after a rocket attack.

For its part, Israeli cyber units crashed the official Hamas Web site just as Israeli ground forces launched an incursion into the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu asserted that most of the attacks aimed at Israel come from Iran or its allies Hezbollah and Hamas.

Tech city rises in the desert

In a bold stroke, Israel is relocating its military intelligence, telecommunications corps and top-secret C4I technology division here to the desert city of Beer­sheba, where military computer spooks will mingle — as much as their security clearances allow — with entrepreneurs at a new, high-tech industrial park devoted to cybersecurity, alongside students and professors from Ben-Gurion University.

The Beersheba boosters are gunning for 10,000 cyber-workers — divided equally between the military and private sector — in town within the next five years, transforming the fastest-growing city in Israel into cyber-central.

Erel Margalit, a member of the Israeli parliament and founder of JVP, a Jerusalem venture capital group invested in cybersecurity, said recruiting the best young minds is essential for Israel’s cyberdefense and its economy.

“In any war game,” he said, “the kids always beat the generals.”

He said the best of the best in Israel’s military cyber units are young Israelis who wake up late, don’t like to take orders and think outside conventional limits.

“In this arena, we are very competitive,” he said.

After three or four years of compulsory military service in a cyber unit, the boosters imagine, the young innovators will form their own companies — such as Check Point Software Technologies, one of the largest companies in Israel, founded by veterans of Israel’s Unit 8200, an intelligence entity whose mission is to decrypt and gather online information.

Israel has become the world’s No. 2 exporter of cyber products and services, after the United States. There are 200 homegrown cybersecurity companies in Israel, alongside dozens of joint research-and-development ventures. They produced $3 billion in exports last year, or about 5 percent of the $60 billion global market in products designed to keep hackers from crashing systems or siphoning data with viruses, malware and purloined passwords.

Haden Land, vice president of research and technology at Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s largest defense contractors, whose company just opened a cyber-
focused subsidiary
in Israel, predicts that the global market will reach $100 billion this year and that Israel will be a center for innovation.

Lure of ‘Mission Impossible’

In Israeli cybersecurity, the younger the better.

The government has committed to establishing cyber-learning programs in 100 Israeli high schools in the next five years. There are also after-school programs for rural children, as well as five-day “cyber summer camps.”

“We teach the teachers. We made the syllabus for the courses, we prepared the lessons, made the books. But we don’t teach in the class,” said Lt. Col. Sagi, head of cyber-education for the IDF, who requested that his last name be withheld in keeping with security protocols.

The program is a joint venture between the military and the national education department. But Sagi said his officers don’t wear uniforms when they enter civilian schools because some principals and parents fret about the military playing an outsize role in education.

“We were looking to build a high knowledge in cybersecurity and computer science, and focus on self-learning and the ability to ‘open the black box,’ ” Sagi said. “Cyber experts have the passion to open unknown areas. If you don’t have this curiosity, then you are not suited.”

Tom Ahi Dror, who is in charge of developing human capital in the prime minister’s cyber bureau, said he has seen cultural differences between Israel and the United States.

“What’s cool in the U.S. is apps, social networking,” he said. “In Israel, when kids think about cyber, they hear the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme song.”

Don’t hack mom’s account

Sonia Shammai teaches the cyber class at a high school in Holon, a short drive south of Tel Aviv. She spent 18 months learning and developing the material, working with her own mentor, a reserve officer in the cyber unit, whom she knew only by his first name.

The selection process for the class is competitive, and when Shammai handpicked the first 19 students to enroll last year, she evaluated them not only on smarts and commitment. “The students and their parents had to sign a letter,” the teacher said, “promising they will not use this knowledge to empty someone’s bank account.”

Three students interviewed described the class as hard and fun. They began by studying how the Internet works and how computers talk to one another. But they also learned how someone unknown can listen in on these conversations.

They learned about dummy Web sites, worms, sniffers, viruses and the hacker consortium known as Anonymous. They wrote code to make a simple chat program and then figured out how someone could hack it.

“We learned that it seems sophisticated, but it’s not so sophisticated. We learned the tools the bad guys use,” said Edo Nahman, 17.

At this point, their teacher interrupted to say that the students are also taught Internet ethics.

The students all said they were considering applying for assignments in military cyber units when their compulsory service begins after graduation.

“I want to do something meaningful in the army, not just get someone a cup of coffee,” said Alona Haimov, 16.

The students said that they spent many late nights on their projects — and that their parents kept telling them to go to sleep.

“The idea is there are soldiers fighting on the battlefield and soldiers fighting on the Internet. We need to protect the electricity system, banking, all sorts of data,” said Gal Londe, 16. “There’s a lot of bad guys trying to hurt us, and if they succeed, we’re in the dark.”