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Many fictitious accounts, bot networks said already at work

Experts implore elections chief to appoint anti-cyber meddling czar

After simulation session tries to grapple with potential threats to April 9 vote, letter to Judge Melcer warns someone must be empowered to act quickly to remove rogue activity

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, chairman of the Central Elections Committee, and Orly Ades, the committee's director general, seen on February 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, chairman of the Central Elections Committee, and Orly Ades, the committee's director general, seen on February 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amid concerns in the run-up to Israel’s elections that there are insufficiently clear lines of responsibility for dealing with cyberattacks and disinformation online, leading academics urged the chairman of the Central Elections Committee this week to appoint someone to coordinate action against rogue activity.

The experts — from computer science, technology, law and defense — made the request in a letter written after a closed election simulation session was held earlier this month in which the cyber arms of the government, police and Shin Bet security services met with representatives of the Central Election Committee and National Security Council to try to decide who would be responsible for dealing with various election meddling scenarios.

The Times of Israel was told by participants that while important issues were raised at the simulation, firm conclusions were not reached.

The group is not scheduled to meet again before the polls on April 9.

In a letter submitted to Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer on Monday, the 12 signatories warned that they were seeing online activity that contravened the spirit of the election law that deals with propaganda.

Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer at a press conference at the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 7, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“Various elements of civil society — including academics and technology experts — have been working recently to try to identify fake profiles and bot networks likely to interfere with the proper management of the elections,” the letter said, and that effort had uncovered a significant number of fictitious accounts and bot networks. (Bots are pieces of computer code that look like the accounts of real people and that suddenly appear in large numbers to support or delegitimize targets online.)

Dealing with them meant identifying the operators, asking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to take them down and, where necessary, referring cases to law enforcement or security agencies, the letter went on.

This task, the signatories insisted, needs to be coordinated by one person with the right qualifications, working under the election committee’s aegis, so that illegitimate material can be removed with the necessary speed.

An illustrative image of hackers/cybersecurity (iStock by Getty Images)

Among the signatories are academics from the University of Haifa, the Haifa Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and the Israel Democracy Institute, as well as the deputy head of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, the directors general of the Israeli Internet Association and the Eshnav NGO, which is dedicated to raising awareness about the impact of the internet, and the hacker activist Noam Rotem.

As of Wednesday, Melcer had not issued a reply.

The election simulation earlier this month was initiated by the Israel Democracy Institute, INSS and the Israel Internet Association.

Several scenarios were presented in an attempt to clarify which body or bodies should be responsible for what.

One simulated situation saw the discovery of mass hacking of election surveys and the realization that political polls had been artificially distorted for months.

In another, Iran was revealed to be using fake social network profiles to spread lies about Israeli Arabs very close to polling day.

In a third, false rumors were spread that the rabbinate had refused to bury an Israeli soldier of Russian origin killed on the Gaza border because of doubts about the soldier’s Jewishness. In this scenario, malign actors were trying to deepen rifts within Israeli society by inciting veteran immigrants from the former Soviet Union to protest against the religious parties.

Institute for National Security Studies Chairman Amos Yadlin attends the Annual International Conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv January 23, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Cyber experts from the police, Shin Bet, Prime Minister’s Office and State Prosecution joined former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch (playing the role of the Central Election Committee chairman), Amos Yadlin (head of the INSS and a former head of IDF intelligence), Facebook Israel’s head of policy Jordana Cutler, a PR company boss and several civilian cyber specialists.

While refusing to comment on the gathering, in which she is understood to have participated, Dr. Tehilla Schwartz-Altschuler of the Israel Democracy Institute told The Times of Israel that allocating responsibility to the various agencies involved in cyber protection is difficult because the reality is so complex.

It was hard to separate foreign interference and local attempts at disinformation, she said, for example, because the same techniques were used through the same online platforms. Furthermore, there was no legal framework for regulating what could and could not be done online and there were questions of where to draw the boundaries between the right to free speech and what was unacceptable.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. (Courtesy)

Protection from disinformation mainly comes from the Elections Law (Propaganda Methods) of 1959, which was written before the advent of the internet and primarily deals with advertising on billboards, radio, planes and boats.

Amendments since then have extended the law to TV, regional radio stations and published election surveys but not yet to the internet.

In November, a committee chaired by Beinisch and tasked with reviewing election regulations and campaigning, presented a proposal not only to extend the election propaganda law to online content but also to give the Central Elections Committee more legal teeth to prevent online manipulation.

But for reasons that remain unclear, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked a bill that reflected the recommendations before it even got to a first reading in the Knesset.

Former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on November 21, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Much of the job of identifying fake profiles and automated accounts in the run-up to the elections is being carried out by researchers, high-tech companies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Algorithmic Diplomacy team.

It is they who are also uncovering how badly protected some of Israel’s most sensitive stores of data are prior to the elections.

On Tuesday, cyber researcher Roni Sochovsky revealed on Twitter that he had discovered weaknesses in a recently launched Interior Ministry Hebrew-language site that invites Israelis to type in their identity numbers and the date their ID cards were issued in order to find out where their nearest polling stations are.

The site’s lack of adequate protection potentially exposed details about all Israelis eligible to vote, Sochovsky found.

Earlier this month, a security breach was discovered on a computerized system created to count votes for the Likud Party primaries. Access to the site was removed after the breach was discovered.

Facebook’s Sean Evins explains how transparent political ads will work, Facebook Israel, Tel Aviv, February 26, 2019. (Facebook)

On Tuesday, Facebook announced that its political advertisement transparency tool, which will force the sponsors of ads to identify themselves publicly, will be only rolled out in mid-March, barely three weeks before the elections.

Making the announcement, Sean Evins, who leads Facebook’s Politics and Government Outreach for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, also told a press conference that because of authorization problems, the company had not employed any fact checkers to flag problematic content related to the Israeli election, as it has done for elections elsewhere in the world.

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