Israel’s security service launches a glitzy geek hunt

JERUSALEM — Israel’s shadowy security service is looking for a few good geeks.

Normally shrouded in secrecy, the Shin Bet launched its first-ever public recruitment drive last week, unveiling a slick Web site and buying online ads in Israel and abroad in a campaign aimed at attracting topflight computer programmers to its cutting-edge tech division.

The campaign is aimed at both attracting the top computer minds available and promoting a more accessible public image, said an official in the agency, who, despite the new policy of openness, spoke on condition of anonymity because of restrictions on dealing with the media.

Though it is widely associated with undercover espionage and tough interrogation tactics, the security service — whose main task is to prevent attacks by Palestinian militants — is actually a funky, intellectually challenging place to work, according to the campaign.

“Have you ever thought of how to stop a suicide bomber on his way to an attack? Have you ever wondered how to locate a ‘ticking bomb’ in the sea of information surrounding us?” reads a slogan on the Web site. “If you thought the only way to fight terror was through interrogation in Arabic, think again.”

The Shin Bet is trying to woo experienced engineers and computer programmers away from their high-tech start-up ventures by offering competitive salaries and a chance to develop the latest technologies, all for the sake of their country’s security, it says.

The organization has drafted influential high-tech entrepreneur Yossi Vardi, who triggered Israel’s start-up boom in the late 1990s, to spearhead the recruiting drive. Vardi helped found Mirabilis, which invented ICQ, the first significant Internet chat service. Mirabilis was ultimately bought out by America Online for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ester Levanon, a former top official who computerized the Shin Bet, said that techies would be responsible for “building sophisticated systems that will be ready to catch the terrorist on his way.”

Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, in an open letter to possible candidates, said that in August alone the agency had thwarted 25 suicide attacks and arrested 17 potential bombers, thanks, in large part, to its information technology unit.

Diskin is featured prominently on the new site. In the past, Shin Bet chiefs were identified in print only by the first initial of their first name and their faces were blurred on TV.

Diskin, shown in a video giving a speech in rolled-up shirt sleeves, said the computer geeks were just as vital to the organization’s effort to weed out suicide bombers as its undercover agents and interrogators.

The ad campaign reflects a new openness for Israel’s most secretive services. The Mossad, the Shin Bet’s counterpart for international intelligence, already runs an Internet site aimed at recruiting agents.

Former top officials in the Shin Bet said combatting modern-day terrorism requires a combination of tech savvy and traditional methods of gathering information.

“The dark rooms don’t bring the goods anymore,” said Levanon, who now serves as chief executive of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. “There is information everywhere and the question is what you do with the millions of pieces of information to find what you need.”