Tel Aviv — The Haaretz newspaper political cartoon depicts a Russian computer expert asking President Vladimir Putin about some Israeli inside political baseball: “For the ultra-Orthodox sector, do we support the Chasidics or the Litvaks?”
It’s an amusing notion that someone at the Kremlin is down in the weeds enough to understand the ideological divisions of niche parties that are lost on most Israelis. But the cartoon reflects a recent widespread concern in Israel in the last week that foreign states like Russia are looking to meddle in the upcoming April 9 parliamentary election.
Might the experience of the U.S., which was on the receiving end of Russian hacking attempts and social network-based psychological warfare, be repeated in Israel? Might the “start-up nation” be vulnerable to the same kind of cyber-sleuthing for which it is celebrated?
The attention comes after Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman was quoted by Israel’s Hadashot television news telling an audience at Tel Aviv University that he was certain that a foreign power would seek to intervene in the vote. The name of the foreign power was redacted by the Israeli state censors.
The reported remarks have triggered anxiety about the integrity and vulnerability of the campaign, but Argaman wasn’t the first to warn of the threat.
In remarks at a conference last month sponsored by the Globes financial daily newspaper, former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo said that Russia, other foreign powers, and non-state actors all have an interest in intervening in Israel’s election campaign.
“Will you or I know about it? The answer is no,” Pardo said. “Is the system built to handle this? I have a very big question mark. Will there be transparency in examining such a thing? I don’t know.”
The statements have helped draw attention to a puzzling irony: Israel, which has built an entire industry on the cyber- and information-security developed to protect its defense systems and critical infrastructure like its electric grid from hacking attacks, nonetheless finds that its election infrastructure — the most basic foundation of its political system — is vulnerable to meddling in certain areas.
According to experts, it’s doubtful that Israel is prepared to deploy a comprehensive defense from cyber-meddling in the upcoming political campaign.
“One would expect that the start-up nation, which is known for its technological capabilities, would be ahead of others. But when it comes to direct influence on public opinion it’s much more complicated. You can’t expect the Israeli army to start deleting political speech on the internet,’’ said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
“I don’t think we’re different than any other democracy. No one was prepared for such extensive intervention via social media. The truth is that it’s a new world, and regulations are always lagging.”
Following the publication of Argaman’s comments, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that Israel is “prepared to thwart a cyber-intervention. We’re ready for any scenario and there’s no country more prepared than we are.” Russia, meanwhile, flatly denied that it uses cyber-meddling to influence foreign elections.
Even before the comments were made public, Israelis were nervous about the security of the election: According to a survey by Pew Research, 62 percent of the Israeli public believes that a cyber-attack could influence the election.
Unlike the 2016 U.S. election, in which the Russians actively worked to help Republican candidate Donald Trump and against Democrat Hillary Clinton, and the 2016 Brexit vote, in which Russians are believed to have boosted the “leave” campaign, it’s less clear how foreign cyber-meddling would factor into the campaigns of which candidates or parties.
Shwartz Altshuler said that she doubts that candidates like Netanyahu need the assistance of the Russians. Instead, experts believe that the main goal of cyber-intervention would be non-partisan in nature — deepening rancor among Israel’s various political fault lines: secular and religious, Arab and Jew, left and right, Sephardi and Ashkenazi.
That would help erode the faith of Israelis in the country’s democratic institutions.
One of the main lines of attack will be social networks. In 2016, Russia set up fake accounts on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to influence public opinion, inflame conservative voters, and suggest that African Americans boycott elections.
“The fact is that tech enables us to use targeted messaging in social media and other digital media, and funnel this to other target audiences. We have seen such conduct, presumably by Russia in the U.S., in the Brexit polls, in the Catalonia poll, in France and Germany. Now it’s the turn of Israel,” said Gabi Siboni, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.
“This is a nice playground to use those capabilities,” Siboni said. “There’s a lot of discourse and tension. Any fake news item can go viral and have an impact. There is the fact that society is fractured, and there’s tension.”
He added that countries don’t need a high level of sophistication to launch these attacks.
Siboni said that the threat of cyber-meddling can be divided into two broad categories: traditional hacking attacks against computers of an organization that’s part of the election, such as the state election commission or a party service; and then the “fake news” and conspiracy theories spread over social networks.
The first category is considered less of a risk. To start, the actual voting process is not even mechanized because Israelis cast ballots for parliament by putting paper slips with a party’s name into a cardboard box. Siboni said that there’s a good working cooperation between Israel’s Central Election Committee and the Israel National Cyber Directorate.
However, a paper published by Israeli cyber-security company Check Point Software Technologies recommended that computers that aggregate the nationwide results be subjected to assessment of potential weak points. Check Point also recommended considering regulations for computer systems that handle voting for parties like Likud and Labor that hold primary elections.
Israel is considered more vulnerable to interference in its social networks. Indeed, in November, Israeli cybersecurity firm ClearSky published a report that found three Hebrew-language fake news outlets promoting Iranian interests.
Experts say that Israel still doesn’t have the legal or regulatory infrastructure to cope with disinformation over social networks.
Shwartz Altshuler noted that domestic disinformation campaigns by political parties might be even more of a concern compared to foreign intervention. Indeed, a legislative proposal forcing parties to label their online political advertisements is opposed by Netanyahu’s Likud party.
In addition to updating outdated laws on political advertisements, procedures to ensure cooperation between the Shin Bet, the national cyber directorate, and the election commission are unclear. The same goes for supervision and determination of fake news, she said.
“It’s the Wild West — there is no regulation of the internet or political propaganda online,” she said. “Technologically we’re very advanced, but in terms of creating the legal regulations [to protect Israel’s election system], we are far behind.”
Josh Mitnick is a contributing editor to The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.