Soldiers from Israel’s elite military units have been driving the success of the country’s tech firms, a new report in the Financial Times has found. A large pool of engineers and entrepreneurs trained in the military group known as Unit 9900 where they fine-tuned computer algorithms to digest millions of surveillance photos and sift out actionable intelligence has turned Israel into a leader in image analysis.
Thousands of elite soldiers have been recruited by some of the country’s most successful tech firms specialising in intelligence gathering and automating decision making. The technology developed by these firms has positioned Israel as a market leader in various fields including the development of driverless cars, drone technology and security systems.
Unit 9900 whose full name is the Terrain Analysis, Accurate Mapping, Visual Collection and Interpretation Agency, has, according to the FT, created a critical mass of engineers indispensable for the future of this industry. The secretive unit with an estimated 25,000 graduates is said to have only recently allowed limited discussion of its work.
Soldiers from Unit 9900, according to the report, sharpened their skills through training in intelligence gathering from the images provided by Israel’s drones and satellites, which include surveillance of the crowded, chaotic streets of the Gaza Strip to the unending swaths of desert in Syria and the Sinai.
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With so much data to pour over, Unit 9900 came up with solutions, including recruiting Israelis on the autistic spectrum for their analytical and visual skills. They learned to automate much of the process, teaching algorithms to spot nuances, slight variations in landscapes and how their targets moved and behaved.
People interviewed by the FT described the intelligence gathering work they carried out as “asking yourself — if you were the enemy, where would you hide? Where are the tall buildings, where’s the element of surprise? Can you drive there, what will be the impact of weather on all this analysis?” Explaining the nature of their work the official said: “We had to take all these photos, all this film, all this geospatial evidence and break it down: how do you know what you’re seeing, what’s behind it, how will it impact your intelligence decisions?”
The FT report went on to point out that while Israel’s development of expertise in intelligence gathering has spawned dynamic tech companies it has also “fuelled less benign activities”, pointing to the vast array of private industry of surveillance and defence sales.
The technologies developed by these firms are sold to some with less than savoury human rights records, the FT says. They cited the Herzliya-based NSO Group which has faced criticism for selling its Pegasus cell-phone surveillance software to the UAE, Kuwait and Kazakhstan, where it has been used to penetrate the cell phones of political dissidents and human rights activists, according to the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
It’s claimed that the key reason for a recent thaw between Israel and its Arab neighbours is a due to the sale of technology developed by Israel’s elite soldiers who are now working for tech-firms. Israel’s critics point out that these technologies and weapons are often developed for the surveillance of Palestinians, or for fighting Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where thousands of Palestinians have died in four wars.
The manner in which these technologies are being used came under scrutiny following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The FT report mentioned the use of Pegasus by Saudi Arabia to track the phones of dissidents living abroad, including friends of Khashoggi. This has pitted one of Israel’s most secretive exports against a global outcry against surveillance.
Critics of Israel have often claimed that Israel’s suppression and subjugation of the Palestinian people, instead of being a burden, has been a tremendous source of its political clout. Israel’s “culture of deep militarism” and years of experience in suppression of political rights in Palestine means it is perfectly equipped to export its technology of control and domination to others. Its unique experiences have made the country an invaluable asset to governments around the world that too are confronted with new security challenges.
In the post 9/11 world, where governments across the world have imposed a state of “permanent emergency” in their attempt to secure their power and maintain a position of privilege in a “global battle space,” Israel has emerged as the leader in “full spectrum domination,” a term coined to describe technologies of control deployed for the purpose of total dominance and control of populations.