Cyber Interference Still a Concern for Israeli Election Officials
Fake news, foreign threats on the minds of law enforcement ahead of March 23 poll
Israel is less than a month away from its fourth election in two years, with campaigns and rallies picking up steam as candidates head into the final stretch. Yet political parties are not the only ones preparing for Election Day. The country’s election committee and law enforcement agencies also are gearing up for the national poll.
Even though this is Israel’s fourth election cycle since April 2019, security officials are trying not to take anything for granted, as threats of cyberattacks and intervention by hostile elements continue to concern the people in charge of ensuring a safe election.
The body responsible for overseeing Israel’s election process is the Central Elections Committee, made up of representatives of all parliamentary parties as well as professional, non-political officials. The committee is headed by a Supreme Court justice.
“Cyber protection, information security and the required defenses are central features in our work,” a spokesman for the committee told The Media Line. “We are working in close counsel with the relevant professional bodies in Israel, including the National Cyber Directorate and the information security agency.”
Nearly all matters besides the coronavirus pandemic have taken a backseat to the nation’s elections preparations this time around. But the issue of a breach in the voting process, by domestic or foreign entities, has concerned Israeli officials in the recent past.
In January 2019, prior to Israel’s first round of dead-end elections, Nadav Argaman, the director of the Israel Security Agency, or Shin Bet, warned that a foreign state would try to interfere in the April elections.
“I don’t know in whose favor, I can’t identify a political interest, but they’ll interfere through means of cyber – hackers, etc.,” Argaman said, in comments widely regarded as aimed at Russia.
Following the 2016 United States presidential elections, investigations by the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Justice Department special counsel all found that Russia had meddled in the electoral process.
“President Putin ordered an influence campaign,” the joint FBI-CIA-NSA report said referring to the Russian president, while the Senate panel concluded Moscow attempted to “sow discord, undermine democratic institutions, and interfere in US elections and those of our allies.”
Yet through the past three Israeli election cycles, no major events involving foul play were reported, and Israel’s voting systems, still comprised entirely of paper ballots and manual counting, were not hacked.
“We have to distinguish between two types of interference,” retired Israel Defense Forces Col. Gabi Siboni, an expert on cybersecurity, told The Media Line.
“The first kind is all the actions that constitute technological meddling that affects the results: computer hacking, changing the vote count, sabotaging voter registration, leaking data. Those are the classical cyberthreats.”
Siboni, who previously headed the Cyber Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies, explains these are the easier methods for Israel to handle.
“Like any system or large body, you have experts whose job it is to protect your information and preserve the integrity of the process. Anyway, things like that won’t happen here, where the entire voting procedure is physical, not digital. We’re just not that vulnerable in that regard,” he said.
However, what seems to concern Israeli authorities more than security breaches is the second type of interference Siboni describes: influencing how someone votes.
“It’s much more subtle and more difficult to thwart,” he said. “It’s operations online that affect how people vote, where anonymous sources influence the electorate to vote a certain way.”
Influencing the vote through open political discourse within the country can be legitimate, Siboni said, adding: “You don’t want to go too far and censure people, you have to know how to contain it, as a democracy. But if it’s done by foreign actors, like Iran or Russia, that you have to prevent.”
We can’t expound on the different methods and means we’ve taken and are today taking to prepare for Election Day, but these issues are obviously on our agenda, constantly
A spokesperson for Israel’s Cyber Security Directorate declined to specify what precise threats have been identified leading up to next month’s elections, and what measures were being taken to mitigate them.
The directorate is not authorized to speak for the Central Elections Committee, the spokesperson told The Media Line. “They’re our ‘clients,’ so to speak, and they’re the ones running the show,” he added.
Siboni says he recommended to the committee during last year’s first election cycle to form a special task force made of experts from Israel’s various law enforcement agencies. “They didn’t heed that advice, and I don’t think today there is a team like that operating,” he said.
The committee spokesperson told The Media Line that “naturally, we can’t expound on the different methods and means we’ve taken and are today taking to prepare for Election Day, but these issues are obviously on our agenda, constantly.”
Unlike previous elections, the upcoming vote will be held under strict coronavirus restrictions, as thousands of special isolated polling booths and designated ballot boxes have been prepared ahead of March 23.
Thanks to Israel’s old-school ways of doing things, however, experts believe the system will not become more vulnerable due to the extreme circumstances.
“Coronavirus has raised attention to the amount of fake news going on online, but that’s not likely to affect the elections, and isolated polling stations aren’t more susceptible to foreign influence either,” Siboni said.
“All in all, the chances of someone actually changing the results or affecting the outcome significantly are rather low,” he said.