Skip to content

Point. Click. Occupy.

Warfare as white-collar tech job

I met David in the summer of 2019. (This piece refers to all interviewees with pseudonyms.) He had recently finished his extended service in Unit 8200, Israel’s equivalent of the NSA, to begin a job at a technology conglomerate. He was left-leaning, common for intelligence veterans, and eager to talk. We arranged to meet at a bar on Allenby, a busy street in central Tel Aviv. Behind the bar, three large screens displayed footage captured from CCTV cameras installed on the street, next to the entrance.  We sipped gin and tonics and watched teenagers jostle for falafel in front of a bus stop. They didn’t know we were watching them.

“It’s like the army,” David told me. “You spend your days surveilling civilians, and then drink gin and tonics.”

Spies are supposed to be good at keeping secrets, but soldiers in 8200 like to talk about their service. Technically, David said, he combed through data from a base in central Israel to determine where bombs should fall. But at the end of the day, he assured me, the military was really more of a networking opportunity—a surefire way to land a high-paying gig at Google or Facebook. As his time in the army neared an end, he turned his work surveilling the occupied Palestinian territories into a line on a corporate CV, toured high-tech companies in Central Tel Aviv, and was connected to cybersecurity CEOs over WhatsApp.

While some soldiers in 8200 spend their time monitoring Hezbollah cells in Lebanon or waging covert war against Iran, others are tasked with managing Israel’s high-tech military occupation of Palestine. The destructive effects of Israel’s surveillance regime in the West Bank and Gaza are well-documented, but veterans of intelligence units who surveilled Palestinians often describe their work as removed from the reality of occupation. David was just one of many veterans I spoke with who framed his service in the parlance of high-tech careerism: as another kind of DevOps, product management, or data analysis. These days, intelligence units are structured in the image of tech conglomerates, and tech conglomerates are contracted to do the work of intelligence units. From Israeli military bases to Silicon Valley corporate campuses, warfare has simply become a white-collar tech job.

Before there were soldiers turned developers and intelligence units refashioned as corporate networking opportunities, there was the Pentagon Highlands Forum. The regular West Coast retreat, first convened at Carmel Highlands in California, brought together members of the U.S. military establishment and budding technology firms throughout the 1990s. Over “a lot of wine, great cheese, and some wonderful fruit,” in the words of director Richard O’Neill, the heads of Google, RAND corporation researchers, and high-ranking generals from the Department of Defense hashed out the future of battle. The early meetings resulted in “the writing of a group of DoD policies, strategies, and doctrine for the services in information warfare,” according to O’Neill. Scholars like Shoshana Zuboff credit the Highlands Forum with laying the groundwork for intensifying collaborations between the national security state and a budding, venture capital-oriented technology industry.

It is no secret that Silicon Valley has always been closely tied to the U.S. military apparatus. The DoD pumped millions into the Bay Area throughout the Cold War in exchange for the computer processors that directed nuclear missiles and launched spy satellites. But the dawn of the digital era gave form to a different kind of partnership, one with global implications. In the late 1990s, the U.S. intelligence establishment began, as O’Neill put it during a 2001 interview, to “take advantage of the speed of the commercial market that wasn’t present inside the science and technology community of Washington.”

Once marked by a culture of secrecy, Israel’s intelligence units were transformed into public-facing innovation labs.

These collaborations reached a new level of intimacy in the years following 9/11. As the mantra of “security” drowned out concerns for “privacy,” U.S. intelligence agencies mined their close ties with Silicon Valley to meet the demands of a burgeoning homeland security state. In exchange for weak regulations on their operations, technology giants happily transferred vast swathes of data and technology to the government. Heads of the CIA and NSA consulted with corporate CEOs on how to operate “more like Google.” Intelligence units were made to mimic the horizontal structure and cushioned office culture of Silicon Valley: operatives began showing up to the base in jeans and calling their higher-ups by their first name. 

Israeli military officials watched America’s intelligence revolution with anxiety-tinged awe during the height of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, one of the most destructive periods in the ongoing conflict. Over three thousand Palestinians and approximately one thousand Israelis were killed between 2000 and 2005 as the Israeli army attacked Palestinian cities, villages, and refugee camps, and Palestinian suicide bombers blew apart Israeli buses and cafes. For Israelis, the intifada was experienced as a national trauma defined by regular and bloody attacks. For Palestinians, it gave way to foreclosed political and economic horizons: life was debilitated by military blockades and checkpoints, road closures and curfews, creeping settlements and fractured political leadership.

Among leaders of Israel’s intelligence apparatus, the violence spurred a commitment to renovation and growth—in the image of the U.S. surveillance state. They were “getting information from our American counterparts that we weren’t organized as an army in the right way,” retired General Yuval told me in February. “The civilian market was leading the army.” In back issues of Migdalor, a magazine circulated among active and veteran soldiers of 8200, Israeli military journalists described the ongoing changes in the United States with admiration. “The 9/11 terror attacks led to the most comprehensive changes the intel community knew since the end of WWII,” recounted a 2006 article detailing a new U.S. intelligence database modeled on Wikipedia. “The agencies have completely restructured to share information, get over bureaucratic obstacles and internal rivalries, and even change the organizational culture.”

With time, Israeli intelligence operations were similarly revamped, with the help of the millions in U.S. aid earmarked for Israeli intelligence operations, joint trainings between U.S. and Israeli armies, and technology transfers. Once marked by a culture of secrecy and compartmentalization, Israel’s intelligence units were transformed into public-facing innovation labs—non-hierarchical and hyper-productive—that drew a new generation of soldiers-turned-hackers. Journalists toured high-tech bases where military officials showcased cutting-edge cyber-technology and rigorous training programs. Books like Spies, Inc. and Start-Up Nation celebrated a top-secret spy unit that churned out technology executives. Newspaper headlines domestically and abroad cited Israeli intelligence training programs as the “secret sauce” to Tel Aviv’s high-tech boom. “They wanted the best people to come to military intelligence,” said General Yuval, “and it worked.” By the late 2000s, tech executives were praising Unit 8200 as a “collection of mini ‘start-ups’” home to more soldiers than the Israeli navy. 

Most technology workers in Silicon Valley barely noticed these cataclysmic transformations to state surveillance, afflicted as they were by the techno-utopian ethos of the early digital age. As several insider accounts of Silicon Valley wager, tech workers stubbornly equated information technology with collective democratization and individual self-actualization despite a growing pile of warning signs: the Snowden files, Wikileaks, and Cambridge Analytica. “We didn’t think of ourselves as participating in the surveillance economy,” Anna Wiener writes in Uncanny Valley of her time at a data analytics start-up in the mid-2010s. “We were just helping developers make better apps. It was all so simple: people loved our product and leveraged it to improve their own products, so that people would love them, too.”

The contented ignorance characteristic of Silicon Valley transferred easily to military contexts. As Israel’s occupation stretched into its fifth decade, service in intelligence offered many an escape from the ethical quandaries of spending three years guarding settler outposts or manning checkpoints in the West Bank. Army service could now fulfill a new generation’s professional ambitions. “I joined because it was what smart kids did; I just wanted to go to university, get a job, and get on with my life. I didn’t want to be a part of the military,” said Maya, who served in an intelligence unit in the mid-2010s and now works as a graphic designer for an advertising firm. Conscripts like Maya are generally plucked from the upper echelons of Israel’s secular and liberal communities the same way wealthy Americans pour into Harvard’s matriculating class. Although military service is mandatory, those from high-income brackets have easier access to the technical training and rigorous primary education necessary to be placed in selective intelligence units. They enter basic training with the hope that, after three years of sifting through social media posts, tapping into telecommunications, or formatting intelligence briefings, they will land a six-figure starting salary at a global technology conglomerate. 

Maya recounted as much to me during our interview in early March: “It didn’t feel like the army, it felt more like my job at a start-up: I called my commander by his first name, I could choose interesting projects, I didn’t have to wear a uniform, I slept at my parents’ house and sat at a computer all day.” As she put it, she was motivated less by a nationalistic desire to safeguard the Zionist dream, and more by the guarantee of a life on the lucrative side of Israel’s chasmic wealth gap. “I remember thinking, I’ll do the bare minimum, I’ll learn some important skills, and it will be over with,” she said. 

Others I interviewed echoed Maya’s pragmatic orientation toward their military experience: less like the plot of a le Carré novel and more like a precursor to working at PayPal. Formally, they said the labor of military intelligence was largely unremarkable. Like their peers in Silicon Valley, they spent grueling twelve-hour days preparing briefings for higher-ups, combing through enormous data sets, and learning new coding languages. Akin to tech CEOs, army commanders encouraged young soldiers to think outside the box, challenge their superiors, and strive toward excellence. “One of the goals of training is explicitly to make the kids feel like nothing is impossible,” one former commander told me this spring. “And you do this by giving them tasks that they think are impossible, and then not let them give up until it’s over.”

Some who I spoke with excelled in this environment, citing their immense responsibility under pressure as a valuable precursor to working in the technology world. Others just tried to get through mandatory service, recounting hours squandered formatting emails, napping under desks, and sneaking in two lunch breaks—a relatively cushioned environment far removed from the reality of military occupation. On the ground, settlers continued expropriating Palestinian land, the army raided and demolished homes, and bombs fell over the Gaza strip, killing civilians.

In the mid-2000s, Israel’s rule over occupied Palestinian territories was also transforming. The optimism of the 1990s, with the Oslo Accords’ promises of peace and a lasting two-state solution, dissipated during the second intifada. Instead, the growth of Israel’s military intelligence apparatus marked an official shift toward a new type of occupation billed as “frictionless,” wherein the wonders of technology would reduce the occupation’s dehumanizing effects. Facial recognition technologies would monitor Palestinian movement but mitigate the long lines at checkpoints. Drones would perform effective reconnaissance while minimizing the boots deployed on the ground. Cyberweapons would mine communications but lessen the number of interrogations. Innovations in artificial intelligence and computer imaging promised to reduce the physical destruction of analog warfare: occupation could be carried out expediently from a convenient distance. 

There was a disjuncture, however, between the popular image of service in intelligence—clean, efficient, technical—and the work of actually sustaining Israel’s occupation.

The expansion of Israel’s surveillance regime also allowed permanent military conflict to coexist with a new era of economic liberalization. New technologies not only extended the army’s control over the territories, they also found a lucrative second life on the civilian technology market. As army-trained developers poured into a growing high-tech industry, Tel Aviv and its outskirts was nicknamed “Silicon Wadi” and Israel rebranded as a “start-up nation.” A new generation of Israelis, eager to participate in this new economy, viewed service in a combat unit as largely antithetical to their aspirations. Launching raids or guarding settlements would do little to prepare one for a college degree, to land a job at Facebook, or to freelance as a graphic designer in Berlin. Intelligence, for many, offered a salve to the inconvenience of mandatory military service in the form of individual redemption: the guarantee of a stable job, generous benefits, and lucrative professional networks. 

There was a disjuncture, however, between the popular image of service in intelligence—clean, efficient, technical—and the work of actually sustaining Israel’s increasingly automated occupation: closely monitoring civilians, collecting intimate information, determining the course of operations that are often lethal. Soldiers I spoke with described this contradiction as difficult to cope with. “There were moments,” said Noa, who served in intelligence in the mid-2010s before moving abroad to work in human rights, “where you realized how the information was being used and how little control you had over any of it.” As a group of reservists who served at the same time as Noa described in a 2014 letter condemning the role surveillance played in the occupation, intelligence officers working in the occupied territories were often tasked with collecting intimate details on Palestinians—like medical histories or sexual orientations—who posed no direct threat to national security. Sometimes soldiers were instructed to pass this sensitive information to higher-ups in order to blackmail innocent civilians.

In late 2013, Noa said she voiced concerns to her commanders about assisting in an operation she didn’t think should have happened. It was one the few times her higher-ups—who usually preached the benefits of horizontal decision-making—made it clear she was a subordinate. Noa said they encouraged her to focus on solving discrete technological problems rather than asking questions—which she did with relish. “I was really just copy and pasting information. I really didn’t want to know what to know what I was doing. I was very comfortable with not knowing,” she said. Indeed, so long as there wasn’t a full siege in Gaza or the West Bank, the structure and ethos of intelligence units allowed soldiers like Noa to remain cleaved off from the violence of Israel’s surveillance regime. Service was, for many, just a stepping-stone to a more lucrative job at a technology conglomerate—whose operations also hinge on the indiscriminate surveillance of civilians. Neither work environment wants anyone asking the wrong kinds of questions.

There is nothing new about technologies alienating soldiers from the effects of battle. From the intercontinental ballistic missile to the nuclear bomb, from drone strikes to strategic cyberattacks, critics have remarked on warfare’s transmutation from a visceral atrocity to something conducted from a distance. Waging technologized warfare now just looks a lot like working at Google. Old oppositions between war and peace, soldier and civilian, destruction and innovation have disintegrated. Parsing through user analytics to bulk up corporate returns or to determine a missile strike has become the same kind of job, at least formally. Meanwhile, the same colonial violence drags on.

While Israeli soldiers are eager to translate their military service into a selling point on LinkedIn, corporate tech workers are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the ways in which their labor advances state violence. Amazon employees have penned letters condemning contracts with the Israeli Defense Forces. Google developers have staged walk outs over collaborations with the Pentagon. However, these isolated actions have yet to congeal into a sustained movement—and the militarization of the tech sector continues apace. Israeli military databases logging Palestinians’ biometric data, biographical information, and patterns of movement are housed on cloud services managed by Amazon and Google employees. Israeli generals name the facial recognition cameras, sensors, and drones that track Palestinians across urban space after IBM’s “Smart Cities.”

For now, Israeli veterans who come to view their mandatory service critically recount how they built up Israel’s surveillance regime the same way dissidents of Silicon Valley reflect on their role scaffolding surveillance capitalism. Both had been seduced by the promise of personal momentum and self-optimization, both lost sight of the big picture—or never really wanted to see it in the first place.