Analysts View Russia As Potential Cyberbully In Upcoming Israeli Election
Nevertheless, other actors like Iran could attempt copycat attacks to disrupt and sow chaos in Israel’s democratic system
Speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv, Nadav Argaman, head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency, warned that a foreign country “intends to intervene” in the form of cyber-attacks ahead of Israel’s national elections slated for April 9. Argaman noted that details about any potential interference have been placed under gag order.
Nevertheless, many analysts assumed the security chief was alluding to Russia, which has a history of meddling in France, Britain and, most conspicuously, in the 2016 American presidential election. A number of intelligence officials in the United States have expressed their belief that the Kremlin acted to damage the Clinton campaign in order to sow instability and to bolster the campaign of either Democrat Bernie Sanders, Republican Donald Trump or both. Notably, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees revealed opposite conclusions, but intelligence services agree with the Senate panel’s conclusion of Russian malfeasance.
Responding to Shin Bet’s assessment, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that Moscow “has never interfered in elections in any country and has no plans to do it in the future.” He recommended that Israeli citizens ignore media reports to this effect.
By contrast, Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist specializing in security and intelligence affairs, believes the Kremlin is liable to intervene via bots and hackers “to create fake news on websites and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.”
“I am not sure the Russians really care who will be the next Israeli prime minister,” he elaborated to The Media Line. “Instead they seek to create havoc and confusion to undermine peoples’ trust in the democratic process. This also creates a wedge between the government and people as well as a polarized society.”
Speculating about whether such a move will succeed, Melman explained that Israelis are already greatly divided and generally do not change their voting patterns which are based on pre-existing “tribal loyalties.” Israeli security authorities and private companies are also very adept at detecting and thwarting foul play.
“Israel has one of the best pools of talent with companies, methods and plenty of knowhow regarding cyber warfare,” he stressed. “People around the world come to Israel for the best advice on combating the phenomenon.”
But the Jewish state is not receiving much cooperation from social media giants.
“Facebook and Twitter, which have promised the U.S. they will be on high alert for future meddling, don’t give a damn about Israel,” Melman contended. “Members of the Israeli parliament have asked them to apply the same policy [as in America], but these companies didn’t even respond to the request. Therefore, these platforms remain open for manipulation.”
Dr. Harel Menashri, head of the Cyber Department at the Holon Institute of Technology and a former Shin Bet official, cautions that while Russia is the obvious suspect other actors like Iran or China could attempt to influence the Israeli vote.
“Whenever a maneuver or attack occurs in the cyber realm immediately there are many copycats,” he told The Media Line. “When it comes to China, the country has not orchestrated cyberattacks to manipulate the outcome of elections in Western nations but has tried to do so in African countries where it hopes to create a harmony of interests with local leaders over access to raw materials and energy resources.”
According to Menashri, irrespective of where a prospective attack comes from it will likely have two particular targets. “On one hand, social media serves as a prime conduit for fake news, and on the other a foreign entity will try to break into the computer system of political parties in an attempt to either destroy or leak compromising data to the public.”
The main difference between elections in Israel and the United States is that the latter uses electronic voting, making it more susceptible to hackers, Menashri explained. Israel does not utilize this system but the government’s Central Elections Committee—a body in the Israeli parliament charged with carrying out the ballot—uses computers that could be infiltrated.
Adonis Azzam, a security researcher at ThinkCyber, an Israel-based training and consulting company, told The Media Line about a recent experiment that shows the ease with which hackers can access electronic election files.
“About a month ago, a group of 45 people from Argentina came here to take part in our demonstration of a website where people with zero knowledge in cybersecurity can log onto and look for biometric databases and servers in specific countries. In this way, they can access top-secret information if those responsible for securing the servers didn’t do a good job.”
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center before the Shin Bet made its assessment found that 62 percent of Israelis fear cyber-attacks ahead of the elections. Nevertheless, most respondents (73%) expressed confidence in the ability of security agencies to handle a major disruption. This was the highest percentage in any of the 26 countries surveyed.