Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, gets into his vehicle while leaving the West Wing of the White House after meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Cybersecurity Powerhouse Israel Is Ripe for Election Meddling

(Bloomberg) -- How does a cybersecurity powerhouse guard its elections against online manipulation?

Not as well as you’d think.

While Israeli engineers develop some of the world’s most sought-after online protection, the government has yet to come up with a coordinated defense to shield the April 9 vote against fake news and other malicious meddling. According to the Israel Democracy Institute research center, responsibility for protecting the vote is divided among at least nine entities.

Non-governmental players are stepping into the breach, and volunteers say they’ve already uncovered hundreds of fake accounts with links to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and domestic political parties.

There are even suspicions that the primaries in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party last week were compromised. The party ordered a recount following complaints of discrepancies in the number of ballots cast versus the number of voters, but denied a hack, saying the votes were tabulated in a closed computerized system. The Haaretz newspaper’s tech writer, Ran Bar-Zik, a web developer who has focused on security, said, however, there was a serious security breach that exposed the results to tampering.

“Those who set up the server relied on its address remaining secret,” but it was inadvertently disclosed, he wrote in Haaretz. “Once it was revealed, anyone could change the recount as he or she pleased.”

Polarized Electorate

In a deeply divided country like Israel, which has always been governed by a coalition of parties, small election margins can be decisive. A movement of a few seats could tilt the breakdown of conservative and liberal blocs.

Concerns about foreign intervention have come from officials as senior as Nadav Argaman, head of the domestic Shin Bet security service, and Hanan Melcer, the Supreme Court judge who heads the Central Election Committee.

“I can’t say I’m at ease,” Melcer said. “I’m concerned.”

Cyber security specialists say a major aim of peddling disinformation and fake news is to deepen the rifts in Israel’s already polarized society, inflaming conflicts between conservatives and liberals, Jews and Arabs, secular and religious. Another is to infiltrate Israeli news sites and distribution lists to disseminate disinformation.

An Iranian network sought to “follow” an online Israeli news service, Walla, as well as Israeli politicians and journalists, said Noam Rotem, a web activist who’s been volunteering to identify and block manipulation. He and a colleague asked social media companies to block the network and they did, he said.

In all, they’ve persuaded Facebook and Twitter to remove hundreds of fake accounts and take down about a dozen networks distributing disinformation, he said.

“The activity is massive and we believe that the closer we get to elections, the more volume we will see and the more hostile the messages will be,” Rotem said.

No Stranger

Israel is no stranger to cyber attacks: The country’s high-profile enmity with Iran and occupation of land Palestinians want for a state have made it a particular target. Even before elections were called in December, hackers created a near-replica of the website of Harvard University’s Belfer Center to publish a bogus report that ex-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo had claimed Moldovan-born former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was a Russian spy.

Between the government and private security operations, the country fends off millions of cyber assaults a day, officials say. Iran says Israel has also targeted its digital operations.

Coherent Defense

Amid a surge in foreign meddling in the election, the Foreign Ministry built a public-private initiative with Israeli cybersecurity company Communit360 to provide real-time alarms. The government’s Israel Cyber Directorate is advising parliament and the elections authority on how to protect the election process.

Facebook executives told Melcer that from March, political ads would have to carry a disclaimer identifying who paid for them, and that advertising from outside Israel would be blocked, his office said. Detractors say the changes will come too late.
 
To parry domestic manipulation, Tehila Shwartz Altshuler, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, has drafted a covenant of acceptable conduct on social media and asked all political parties to sign. Only Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud has refused, she said. A Likud spokesman didn’t reply to repeated requests for comment.

Gabi Weimann, who authored a report on cyber manipulation for the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya university, said the government could be more proactive.

“To say this is the responsibility of Facebook or Google is useless because they don’t have the manpower or the motivation,” Weimann said.

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