Expert: 'No doubt' Russia will try to intervene here

Admitting flaws, election committee ‘devising plan’ to thwart foreign meddling

After Shin Bet chief issues alert, body organizing April’s ballot says it’s working to address vulnerabilities to politically motivated cyberattacks, but doesn’t have all the tools

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Ballot boxes filled with votes from nationwide municipal elections are brought to the Central Election Committee headquarters for counting, October 22, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Ballot boxes filled with votes from nationwide municipal elections are brought to the Central Election Committee headquarters for counting, October 22, 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Israel’s Central Elections Committee said Wednesday that it is devising a detailed plan of action to thwart attempts by foreign countries to meddle in the April 9 Knesset elections, following a reported alert from the head of the Shin Bet security agency that such attempts are being made by a country that cannot be named by orders from the military censor.

“Together with security bodies, we learned what happened in other countries and we are devising a plan of action,” the body in charge of organizing the national ballot said in a statement.

The statement came a day after reports that Shin Bet chief Nadav Argamon had warned a foreign state “intends to intervene” through cyberattacks in Israel’s elections. The name of the state was gagged by the military censor.

The elections committee said Israeli officials had met with senior representatives from Facebook, which was a conduit for a large amount of election meddling traced to Russia in the 2016 US election cycle. According to the committee, all bodies involved in the election process have been alerted, though it said it could not detail what actions were being taken for security reasons.

Election interference has been high on the international agenda ever since America’s 2016 presidential election, in which Russian hackers stole and published more than 150,000 emails from various Democratic targets in what US spymasters and senior lawmakers have described as a wide-ranging effort to help elect Trump. In addition, US security agencies say that Russian agents successfully ran political influence operations by disseminating “fake news” aimed at swaying the election.

Illustrative: a man casts his ballot at a voting station in Israel’s Municipal Elections, October 30, 2018, in Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel uses paper ballots, which means the actual vote count is less vulnerable to voter fraud, but experts warn that significant holes remain in the country’s ability to tackle politically motivated voter manipulation via social media platforms on a mass scale.

Speaking with The Times of Israel, the committee’s spokesman Giora Pordes admitted that it does not currently have the tools to tackle such activity.

“We are not responsible for distinguishing between truth and lies,” he said. “That is not in the purview of the committee.”

Pordes said that “every complaint will be decided on based on its own merits within the law,” but that spreading “fake news” was not illegal in its own right.

Despite the vulnerabilities, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier Wednesday that Israel was better equipped to thwart election meddling than anywhere else.

“Israel is prepared to thwart a cyber intervention. We’re prepared for any scenario and there’s no country more prepared than we are,” he told reporters.

In his speech, which took place Monday, Argaman indicated that his warning was not merely an assessment or expectation, but that the Shin Bet had concrete information pointing to a specific opponent preparing a specific attack, according to Channel 10 news.

Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman attends a Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on March 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Responding to speculation from lawmakers that the threats, like in the US 2016 election, came from Russia, the Kremlin said it had no intention of interfering in Israeli or any other country’s elections.

There have also been concerns about cyber meddling from other countries.

Israeli cyber researcher Ohad Zaidenberg said Wednesday that researchers had uncovered a number of Iran-based fake news networks aimed at Israel, warning that “the potential for intervention (in the elections) is worrisome.”

Following Monday’s TV report, Labor MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin submitted a request to urgently convene the Knesset’s cyber subcommittee in order to discuss ways to prevent such online meddling.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert on technology policy at the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, said Israel’s major systems appeared safe from hacks, but that outside companies working for various parties had the same kind of resources as those allegedly working for Russia to sow havoc in a campaign.

“Russia is trying throughout all the Western countries to undermine the public’s trust in liberal democracy,” Shwartz Altshuler warned. “There is no doubt they will try to do here what they have done in other countries.”

Facebook’s Head of Policy and Communications Jordana Cutler (left) and Israel Democracy Institute researcher Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler at the IDI’s Democracy in the Information Age program, January 18, 2018. (Oded Antman)

According to Shwartz Altshuler, tougher laws need to be passed to deal with politically driven cyber activity, and particularly the spread of “fake news.”

“We are a start-up nation when it comes to technology but we are behind the curve in terms of digital legislation,” she said.

Legal protection for voters stems principally from the Elections Law (Propaganda Methods) of 1959, written before the advent of the internet and primarily dealing with allocations for television advertisements and mounted posters.

In November, a committee chaired by former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch and tasked with reviewing election regulations and campaigning presented a proposal to give the Central Elections Committee more legal teeth to prevent online manipulation.

The bill seeks to clamp down on fake news by compelling the authors of any paid political content, including comments, to identify themselves publicly — a move that will apply both to the internet and to more traditional campaign materials, such as posters.

But with the bill currently awaiting its first reading in the Knesset plenum and with parliament currently in recess until the April elections, it will have to wait until the next national ballot.

Times of Israel staff, AP and AFP contributed to this report.

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