"What (Unit) 8200 has been able to do is create a pretty unique, and very effective, screening program, which for the most part lets you identify not the people with the most knowledge, but rather the people with the aptitude to learn new technologies, ideas very, very quickly," Nadav Zafrir, co-founder and CEO of Team8, told CNBC.
Team8 is an Israeli company, founded by veterans from the intelligence agency, that is part-think tank, part-incubator and part-venture creation foundry that develops cybersecurity startups from the ground up. Prior to co-founding Team8, Zafrir was the chief of Unit 8200.
Gil Shwed, who co-founded Check Point, was a member of Unit 8200, as was Udi Mokady of CyberArk and Nir Zuk of Palo Alto Networks.
Unit 8200 starts identifying talent in Israel as early as high school. Candidates are screened based on grades and recommendations from their schools, Liran Grinberg, co-founder of Team8 and another Unit 8200 veteran, explained to CNBC.
Potential candidates are then taken for a half-day experience at a separate location, where they take tests and engage in simulations of various kinds. Grinberg said some tests were gauging the candidate's current knowledge and skills and others were more focused on testing the ability to learn new things very quickly — a crucial skill for responding quickly to cyber attacks.
"(The) next stage includes an interview, as well as more simulations," said Grinberg. "At the end of it, there are different skill sets and professions within the unit. Based on the tests and simulations, the majority of the people do not pass."
The candidates who pass go on to serve with Unit 8200 in various roles — technology-focused or intelligence-focused — for their mandatory military service after high school.
Grinberg said he couldn't specify the exact nature of operations at the unit. Previously, a Financial Times report said the unit snoops on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank or naval and air blockade in the Gaza Strip. The New York Times reported in 2012 that the unit was part of a collaboration between the U.S. and Israel that took out Iranian centrifuges spinning to purify uranium."
After completing their service, some stay on with the unit, while others leave to seek further education or employment in the private sector; many opt to also start their own companies.
"The reasoning is that the culture that (Unit) 8200 brings creates entrepreneurial spirit," according to Grinberg. "The talents leave the unit (and) go to the industry with quite a few years of professional experience working with the most cutting edge technology."