Preventing electoral interference – the next frontier for the National Cyber Directorate?

Even in cases where the interference operation was either unsuccessful or did not take place at all, the mere possibility of such influence becomes a polarizing point in and of itself.

Israel elections:time to vote. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel elections:time to vote.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In recent years, the threat of foreign interference in elections by governmental and non-governmental actors alike became prominent in public discourse due to the alleged actions taken by Russians and others in various Western election campaigns, such as the 2016 US presidential elections. Such interferences, or “influence operations,” are not limited to the formal election period itself; they are often preceded by the lengthy establishment of large networks for message dissemination and resonance.
Even in cases where the interference operation was either unsuccessful or did not take place at all, the mere possibility of such influence becomes a polarizing point in and of itself. The threat of electoral interference should therefore be avoided, especially in contested societies like Israel, necessitating the appointment of a national authority tasked with the observation, disruption and prevention of influence operations.
Although Israeli decision-makers are demonstrating growing awareness of this threat, they have yet to agree on the agency to which this responsibility should be assigned. Subsequently, an ad hoc “special elections team” had to be set up in preparation for the September 2019 elections. The team was led by the National Cyber Directorate, and included members of various security agencies, as well as the Justice Ministry. It only functioned during the formal elections period, and focused solely on potential technological disruptions, leaving influence operations outside its scope.
The absence of clearly assigned tasks and responsibilities for facing the threat – in spite of growing recognition of its importance – may be compared to Israel’s “homeland security” situation until the mid-1970s. Despite growing numbers and severity of Palestinian terrorist attacks throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Israeli government neither assigned clear responsibility nor allocated resources for dealing with this threat.
It was only when the ad hoc arrangements, such as sending non-specialized military units to hostage-rescuing operations, failed miserably in the Ma’alot massacre (May 1974) that Israel’s government assigned comprehensive homeland security responsibilities to the police, and provided the resources necessary to face the threat, such as the establishment of a specialized counter-terrorism unit (Yamam).
There is no need to wait for the cyber equivalent of the early 1970s terrorist attacks in order to counter the threat of interference operations. The Israeli government has already taken some steps toward assigning comprehensive responsibilities, as well as building expertise and capabilities, for the technological dimensions of cyberthreats. It has established the National Cyber Directorate as a policy apparatus and its Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) as its operational arm.
The National CERT in Beersheba, which may be defined as the national “cyberops center” – is an organizational solution that faces the constantly changing nature of cybercrimes and terrorism threatening national, private and non-governmental organizations. It does not limit itself to monitoring threats and disseminating information but takes a proactive approach to managing cyber-incidents. Organizations of national importance, including private companies, receive support from the CERT response team, helping them to promptly return to full business continuity.
IT IS reasonable, therefore, to task the National Cyber Directorate with the formal responsibility of developing and coordinating the implementation of a counter influence operations policy. The CERT is exactly the place where the expertise and capabilities required for monitoring and disrupting such interferences should be developed. Except instead of only furthering the nation’s preparation for potential cyber threats from a technological perspective, the National Cyber Directorate and CERT must also address the thus-far neglected cyber-consciousness and cognitive aspects.
Such an approach could, perhaps, be based on the model of the energy-focused sectorial cybernetic centre in the CERT. This is one of the few, in the world that monitor electricity producing organizations in real-time, as well as gas and water providers. It enjoys a unique governance arrangement whereby the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry is guided by the National Cyber Directorate but independent in its actions. Once an ‘unusual’ event is identified, the CERT provides specialized assistance.
A similar arrangement could certainly apply to the threat of influence operations, whereby the National Cyber Directorate would provide guidance to media, parties, academic and other organizations on how to identify and disrupt influence operations, as well as proactive support countering the threat once an interference attempt is indeed identified via a specialized CERT centre.
As with many emerging security threats in the past, Israel will someday face and develop an innovative response to influence operations. The only question is: Will the Start-up Nation wait for a cyber-Yom Kippur before acting, or be proactive for a change?
The writer is a research fellow at the University of Applied Sciences for Public Administration in Bavaria (HföD), and visiting researcher at the University of Bamberg.