The Jerusalem Post

Elections in Israel face cyberthrea­ts and foreign interventi­on

- • By ADI KOPLEWITZ The Media Line

As the date of the next election in Israel approaches, so do the attempts to intervene and meddle with the results, according to local experts in the field.

“There are two types of threats on elections when it comes to the cyber dimension,” says Col. (res.) Gabi Siboni, the director of the Military and Strategic Affairs Program and Cyber Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

He maps out the possible risks in an interview with The Media Line. “The first kind is hacking the very systems Israel is using in the elections,” he said. “This could allow meddling with results, recounting of the votes and other frauds. The other type, however, includes using social networks to spread false informatio­n and affect public opinion.”

When it comes to solutions, it’s unclear if there are any, Siboni says. “The first threat is easier to deal with, you use cybersecur­ity experts,” he said. “The second one, however, is much more complicate­d. It’s especially challengin­g because democracy always strives to allow freedom of expression, and this threat is based on it.”

This sort of attack on public opinion, including misinforma­tion and the spreading of conspiracy theories, isn’t familiar in many other places in the world.

The main actor using bots and fake users to spread lies and meddle in other elections is Russia, experts say.

“We’ve seen this sort of meddling done by Russia in many places around the world: in the US elections, during Brexit, and in elections in Africa,” Achiya Schatz, executive director of the disinforma­tion watchdog Fake Reporter, told The Media Line. “We don’t even deal with cyber so much. We trace suspicious activity on the web and try to find its source. Eventually, our goal is to discover it and notify the public, because that’s the main thing you can do to harm the effectiven­ess of these campaigns.”

These campaigns are carried out via a mass of fake accounts and sharing of disinforma­tion, aiming to divide society and radicalize the public discussion, according to Schatz.

“The goal is to destabiliz­e democratic countries, by sowing doubts about the very legitimacy of institutio­ns,” he explained. “A common and very dangerous pattern we recognize is bot nets spreading conspiraci­es about elections being rigged. That one is especially dangerous because it risks the very institutio­n. They are agents of chaos, basically. The parties behind these nets want disagreeme­nts to deepen, radicals to gain power and, eventually, destroy trust in the democratic system itself.”

The most famous example of the results of such a campaign is the raid on the US Capitol by far-right activists on January 6 of last year.

“The idea that eventually led to the raid was exactly this: the elections have been stolen and are therefore not legitimate,” he said. “We see very similar messages on Israeli networks, more and more, as elections are getting closer. These could be dividing messages coming from inside, as part of a political campaign, but sometimes we recognize there is an outer source to this. Telling which it is can be very hard many times.”

Israel has passed a bill to fight such election interferen­ce for the November 1 election, which demands that any web campaignin­g will have to be officially recognized and the campaign will have to reveal

who is funding it. “This will force at least some parties to take responsibi­lities for what they spread, and hopefully make it easier to reveal lies,” Schatz said.

The main beneficiar­ies of the current situation are the politician­s, who can meddle with public opinion the way they want with no direct consequenc­es

on them, and also the social networks themselves, which enjoy increased traffic.

“The companies [social media networks] never take responsibi­lity, they don’t want to deal with this at all. And politician­s have a lot to gain from this, because they use the same methods many times,” Schatz said.

The main users of bot networks in Israel in recent years is the Likud Party. “No one, Right or Left, has similar numbers to them. There’s nothing like it in Israeli politics,” he added.

Schatz’s initiative is pushing for informatio­n consumptio­n education. “If you teach people to recognize fake profiles or fake news by how it is written and what is its source, it harms the effectiven­ess of such web campaigns,” he explained. “We are also hoping politician­s will wake up and realize what’s at risk here, so we are trying to tell the public about the dangers. It’s the very essence of democracy we are talking about.”

Another action Schatz hopes will help is more people reporting about suspicious accounts. “We operate [in Fake Reporter] based on people’s inquiries. The more we have, the more we can track down and fight this phenomenon,” he said.

Israel’s official national election committee gave a statement in response to The Media Line’s inquiry, saying, “The Central Elections Committee carries out intensive and extensive activity in the field of systems and cyberdefen­se. The committee works in close cooperatio­n with the national cyber system and all security agencies in the State of Israel. The protection of the elections is characteri­zed by a series of actions. Naturally, it is not possible to expand on what measures and methods are used as part of the preparatio­n for the elections, because if they become known to the public, this may help those who seek to disrupt the elections.”

 ?? (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90) ?? AS THE DATE of Israel’s next election approaches, so do concerns over attempts of interventi­on and meddling.
(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90) AS THE DATE of Israel’s next election approaches, so do concerns over attempts of interventi­on and meddling.

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