Months Before Shin Bet Warning, Israeli Cyber Chief Cautioned of Election Interference

Yigal Unna warned of assaults on state facilities in October, three months before Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman said foreign country intends to interfere in upcoming election

FILE PHOTO: A hacker tries to access and alter data from an electronic poll book during a hacker convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, July 29, 2017.
\ Steve Marcus/ REUTERS

Israel's National Cyber Directorate warned that cyber attacks could influence the outcome of the upcoming Israeli election last October, nearly three months prior to a similar statement made by the head of the Shin Bet security service.

The threat is the stream of assaults on state facilities, Yigal Unna said at a conference on high tech at the Sha’arei Mishpat Academic Center of Law and Science in Hod Hasharon, which was also attended by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Israel Defense Forces' outgoing Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.

“They do not shut down a country, but they impact its ability to function: disrupting electricity, banks, finances and election results,” said Unna, adding that "Israel is in a fairly good condition in terms of its cyber security, but not in the best place in which it could be."

>> Massive manipulation, foreign influence campaign and cyber: The threats to Israel's election

Unna's comments were followed up last week, when Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman warned that a foreign country intends to interfere in the Knesset election on April 9. According to reports, Argaman said the interference would be by cyber technology, adding that at this time he could not identify the interest of the country behind the attack.

Israel's National Cyber Directorate Yigal Unna at a conference in Tel Aviv, 2018
Tomer Applebaum

Two days later, in response to a question about Israel, the Kremlin denied that Russia was interfering in election campaigns. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow "did not intervene, does not intervene and does not intend to intervene in elections in any country in the world."

At the October conference, Unna said hackers understand that information does not have to be taken, but only disrupted to cause chaos. Unna added that despite the fact that Israel is an advanced country, “it can also be attacked by Gaza, Syria and Iran. All that’s needed is a computer. You don’t have to bring down buildings in Israel.”

Unna reminded his audience about Russian intervention in the U.S. 2016 election, “by means of hacking senators’ emails and leaking information.”

The former head of the National Cyber Directorate, Buki Carmeli, said that “influence could be caused” by a “technological attack” on Election Day systems when asked last year about the issue at a meeting of the Knesset House Committee.

Such an attack could not influence the outcome of an election in Israel, Carmeli told the Knesset committee, but there are countries where it can do so.

A senior Israeli security official very familiar with preparations against cyberattacks said recently that the goal of countries today is to protect the democratic process. “The concept today of various attacking countries and organizations is that the entity that disrupts life and government in the country it is trying to attack – wins.”

According to the security establishment, attacking countries and organizations begin working a long time before the elections in the countries they want to harm, and create a false information infrastructure over a long period of time.

According to the senior official, this situation creates “an erosion of values and disruption of ideals, an erosion of official institutions in the country and creates chaos and lack of control that turns the concept into reality.”

The senior security official added that the goal in such cases is to create a “disrupted world.” Israel, like other countries, he said, still does not know how to assess the cumulative damage of foreign interference by cyberattacks, nor the impact of conspiracy theories intended to damage public faith in state institutions.

But Israel, like other countries, knows how to get the most out of its cyber capabilities, and it is working robustly by using these methods itself against enemy countries.