How Israel can save its elections from hacking

“If the hacker is from the Russian government and not just a criminal, the abilities of Russia, China, the US, England are powerful abilities."

Hacker in a hood (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Hacker in a hood
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A day after France elected Emmanuel Macron as its next president despite his campaign being hacked and embarrassing internal emails being dumped into the public sphere, the question is: Will the Israeli election be the next to be hacked? The follow-up questions are: Can Israel do anything to prevent its election from being hacked? And is it ready to take the issue seriously enough to do so? The hacking of the US election in November, most likely by Russia, and which debatably aided Donald Trump to eke out a victory over Hillary Clinton, put the issue at the forefront of public debate.
In actuality, Russia and possibly others have been hacking elections in less prominent democratic countries for some time, though they were given little notice.
But the US hack was thought to be of such great magnitude that it might change the landscape and infrastructure for protecting elections completely.
If the public thought that after such a consequential election hack, other countries, such as France, would immediately act to prevent the next hack, they were wrong.
Institute for National Security Studies cyber director Col. (res.) Gabi Siboni said that such goals were “not realistic,” adding that, “what happened in France does not get to the heart of the vulnerabilities in elections.”
Siboni said that election hacking is no different than hacking any private company.
“That the hackers succeeded is not surprising. If you don’t invest a lot” in cyber defense, then hacking is “hard to block,” even if it is amateur criminal hackers, he said.
“If the hacker is from the Russian government and not just a criminal, the abilities of Russia, China, the US, England are powerful abilities, and there is not much an organization” can do to stop them from hacking, he said.
Asked why French intelligence services had not invested in protecting Macron’s campaign to preserve the election’s integrity, particularly after the disastrous US election hacking, Siboni suggested “putting things in proportion.”
He said that “hacking can be done over time,” meaning the hacking may have taken place long before it was clear that Macron was the front-runner.
Hackers might have hacked “many of the candidates,” he explained, and countries do not have sufficient resources to fully defend all of their candidates.
So what can Israel do protect the integrity of the next election? “All democratic countries need to promote a reform to define the elections themselves as a critical infrastructure” for maximum resource protection, just as these states invest to protect their electric infrastructure, said Siboni.
But that is just one element – one that has yet to come up, he said.
When speaking of the hacking of the US and French elections, what is meant is that campaign networks were hacked, not the vote-counting machines themselves. In other words, neither Russia nor anyone else has yet succeeded, or been brazen enough, to hack the systems that operate and tally the voting process itself.
Siboni said that a bigger problem than protecting the voting networks and the campaigns of the candidates is the issue of “propaganda – the ability of actors who are outside of politics to influence and impact headlines and cause people to vote based on fake news.”
The key, he noted, is to find a balance on allowing this spin game between internal domestic actors, and blocking or marginalizing the impact of such fake news by foreign actors.
How can campaigns better defend themselves, once they are defined as critical infrastructure? Siboni said that Israeli intelligence agencies should share intelligence with select larger political campaigns, provide them special warnings, advise them about their cyber vulnerabilities, provide them with instructions, and even provide state funding that goes directly to cyber defense.
He further noted that campaigns should have a legal obligation or duty to secure themselves from cyber attacks, so that security is not viewed as voluntary.
To rein in costs, Siboni suggested that only the largest campaigns get this extra focus.
He said that all of the above changes would not make hacking an Israeli election impossible, but could block some hackers and raise the cost and time investment of hacking for others.
He argued that Western democracies must form a united front, legally and also with an efficient new system for sharing information widely about election hacking and fake news.
Such a united front could impose obligations on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to ensure they better control fake news use of their platforms.
Finally, Siboni gave a cautious yet optimistic message. He sounded the alarm that time is of the essence, since election hacking and technologies that spread fake news will just get immeasurably more powerful going forward. Yet he also expressed optimism that Israel “will be ready,” noting that there are already early discussions under way to actualize many of the solutions he put forward.