'Israel's election on Tuesday will be target of cyber-attacks'

Dr. Gabriel Weimann to ‘Post’: Highly doubtful Israel built digital defense against cyber attacks this time after capabilities were missing in April vote.

By
September 15, 2019 23:38
4 minute read.
Hooded man holds laptop computer as blue screen with an exclamation mark is projected on him

Hooded man holds laptop computer as blue screen with an exclamation mark is projected on him. (photo credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)

At the conclusion of the April 9 election, an Israeli watchdog group exposed a network of hundreds of social media accounts, many of them fake, used to smear opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to amplify the messages of his Likud Party.

Shortly before that, in January, it was reported that Iranians had been using hundreds of fake accounts on Israeli social media pages, in an effort to sow social division and influence the then upcoming Israeli election.

Now right before Israelis go to the polls, due to the proximity of the two elections as well as the immediacy and scale of the threats, it is highly doubtful that Israel has built a digital defense against cyberattacks this time around either, said Dr. Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communications at the University of Haifa.

He told The Jerusalem Post that this Israeli election is likely to be marred by online election interference just like the last election, something that will only be fully understood after Tuesday.

“Today, through social networks, it is possible to spread false rumors, promote ‘fake news,’ incite and radicalize discourse, cause harm to candidates and parties, widen social rifts and plunge election campaigns into an abyss of extremism, distrust, sectarianism and violence,” Weimann said.

“Israeli society is divided, stratified and split; it has religious, economic, social, ethnic, national and ideological conflicts,” he said. “An inciting discourse could deepen divisions, widen gaps and create polarization and radicalization.”

In the last election, Israel feared that it would be the target of Russian interference, much like the United States was alleged to have been in 2016. Before the April vote, Nadav Argaman, head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), made a statement about a “foreign power” interfering in the Israeli political system via the Internet.

He said that a foreign country was trying to use cyber abilities to interfere in Israel’s upcoming election. Then he said that he did not know what that country’s political purpose was, but that “it is trying to intervene – and I know what I am talking about.”

Weimann said, however, that it was not just Russia who interfered in the last election. Terrorist organizations and state sponsors of terrorism were also included on the map of online threats, having the goal not of targeting a specific campaign but to interfere in Israeli political discourse in general.

“I see it as classical terrorism – the spread of chaos and fear to terrorize a population: just without explosives, bombs, rifles, killing or so on,” he said.

Weimann said these organizations are “fully aware” of the existence of the use of online platforms for attacks, and have used “hard” attacks to harm Israel in the past. For example, members of terrorist organizations and their supporters have tried to disrupt critical systems and websites, hack into accounts and more.

In 2017, Hamas created dozens of fake profiles of young, beautiful women who reached out to IDF soldiers and extracted classified and sensitive information from them. Dozens of soldiers fell into the trap.

The next year, Hamas tried to hunt soldiers through a WhatsApp application.

WEIMANN SAID that a recent study conducted by two Hebrew University professors, who were both former Shin Bet officials, reviewed the digital weaknesses in the Israeli election campaign, which they broke down into three categories: 1) attacks on the election process 2) attacks on political players – parties, candidates and campaigns, and 3) attacks on social networks that could influence public opinion or discourse.

The study found that despite recent reports about Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz’s cell phones, Israel could defend itself against “hard” interference, such as disrupting computer systems of the election administration, hacking campaign managers’ computers, leaking party data, etc.

But what about “soft” attacks – which are considered less violent, but which Weimann said can influence election results?

“Here, the Israeli defense will face more difficulty,” he said. “Social networks can be breached by anyone – and the ability to manage, control and block content is in the hands of private companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft, whose powerlessness has already been demonstrated.”

Weimann said that these cyber terrorists use three main tools: avatars, bots and trolls.

An avatar is a fictional digital character that appears on the web and pretends to be real. A bot is a software application designed to perform actions online by mimicking a normal user – a kind of robot that poses as a human user. A troll is a user whose entire purpose is to provoke and inflame the discourse by writing controversial, false or slanderous statements. A troll can be real, an avatar or bot.

While it may be too late for Tuesday, Weimann said that steps can be taken to protect countries in the future and that Israel is at the forefront of the industry.

The first step is monitoring.

“Several countries decided to establish public and private research and monitoring bodies to work to examine dissemination on social networks, expose the lies and manipulations, and report them to the public,” he said.

The next step is to identify the attackers and inform the social media companies about them, which can then block or remove the attackers.

Finally, another idea is to “vaccinate” the public through a public information campaign on how to identify fake information and how to avoid spreading it.

A full report will only be issued after Election Day, he said, and “based on the last election five months ago, I don’t think we’ll find that the cyber influence has stopped.”

And he doesn’t envision it stopping anytime soon, either.

“It’s like a game of chess: I move, you make a move to respond to my move,” he said. “That’s how it is in cyberspace.”


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