Under Specter of Fake News and Russian Hacking, Israel Debates Cyberthreats to Election Process

Israeli lawmakers voice concern about insufficient protection of vote-counting systems, distorted items disseminated via social media

Votes being counted at a polling station by officials following Israel's January 22, 2013 election.

In the shadow of suspicions of Russian interference in the U.S. elections, the Knesset held a session on Monday to discuss whether foreign entities could conceivably interfere in and influence Israel’s next election.

Discussion focused on potential threats including infiltration of the vote-counting system, theft of data from polling companies, and the planting of false news items via social media in order to influence voters.

During the discussion, it became clear that Israel's Central Elections Committee is not classified as a critical national infrastructure, which means that the Israel National Cyber Bureau is technically not obligated to protect it from cyberattacks. The head of the committee, Orly Adas, refused to specify in a public forum which computerized system is used by her organization, but did note that the INCB and the Shin Bet security service help to safeguard it.

“The system into which the voting results are fed is completely separated from the web so there is no threat of intervention there. It is a completely closed system,” said Adas, adding that the Shin Bet has developed a central computerized system for the elections committee.

INCB chief Buki Carmeli stressed that it is essential to protect the committee’s five systems.

According to its website, the INCB is tasked with "improving the defense of national infrastructures critical to the continuation of normal life in the State of Israel and to protect them, as much as possible, from cyberattack."

During the Knesset session, David Siman-Tov, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, noted that “our assumption has been that even if we defined the election committee as critical infrastructure, it will not help. It would be better protected from interference during voting, but this would constitute contamination of the political process. Not only do foreign countries want to undermine elections, they also want to undermine confidence in the regime and create rifts within it, [by means of] processes involving the contamination of public discourse.”

In the U.S., hackers working on behalf of Russia are thought to have been behind a number of cyber-related phenomena, including media manipulation aimed at boosting the image of Donald Trump and weakening that of his rival, Hillary Clinton. Reports about Clinton’s ostensibly ailing health on the eve of the November election, as well as false items on the social media claiming that the pope supported Trump, have since been attributed to hackers outside the country.

During the Knesset discussion, research was presented that showed that 400,000 individuals – some 15 percent – of those participating in social network discussions about the U.S. presidential elections were actually robots meant to spread distorted information. In one month alone, these sources were responsible for some 19 percent of all conversations on the subject. Another study showed that dissemination of false and manipulative information on social media before the elections influenced America's public agenda and the type of coverage given to different candidates.

Israeli lawmakers got an overview of the ongoing U.S. investigation of Russia’s apparent attempts to disrupt the electoral system, as well as British efforts to expose suspected foreign involvement in the Brexit referendum.

The discussion took place in the framework of a joint session of the cyber-defense subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, headed by Likud MK Anat Berko, and the Science and Technology Committee, headed by United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev.

Maklev slammed the state for not doing more to prevent intervention in elections by foreign countries.

“In my discussions with official bodies," he said, "I have not seen anyone taking serious responsibility for this. The response is that it’s not within their authority or responsibility. We are all exposed to the news about the various cyber-related events that have influenced the elections in the Western world, [including those in] the U.S., France, Germany. Even if just half or a third of the suspicions prove to be true – it turns what was an imaginary scenario into a concrete threat."

“The critical infrastructure must be examined to ensure that it cannot be damaged in an election and that there will be no interference by a foreign entity,” said Berko, adding, “it’s doubtful that there has been any harmful interference in the democratic process.”

“Most of the fake news comes from people whose goals are commercial and not political in nature,” said Jordana Cutler, director of policy and communications for Facebook Israel.

“In Europe we are starting to recruit 3,000 people to prevent the creation of fake news on subjects like racism and incitement to violenc," Cutler added. "We’re talking about checking the content — which is different from checking facts. I would be happy to receive neutral position papers about people who can examine facts during an election without interfering. As a company we don’t want to get into a political debate about what is right and what is not.”