'Russia Doesn't Interfere': Kremlin Shrugs Off Israeli Warning on Election Meddling

Kremlin spokesman says Moscow 'did not intervene, does not intervene and does not intend to intervene' ■ Shin Bet chief warned a 'foreign country' intends to meddle in upcoming election

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after their talks at the Bocharov Ruchei residence, Sochi, Russia, August 23, 2017.
Alexei Nikolsky,AP

Russia denied on Wednesday that it is meddling in Israel's upcoming election after Israel's Shin Bet security chief warned that a "foreign country" intends to intervene in the campaign.

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."

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Shortly later, the Russian embassy in Israel reiterated Peskov's statements in a tweet accompanied by a meme reading "Keep calm and blame Russia or Russian hackers."

According to a report on the Israel Television News Company, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman said on Monday that a foreign country would intervene in Israel's election via hackers and cybertechnology. Argaman said it remains unclear at this point what the foreign nation's political interests are, but that "It will meddle – and I know what I'm talking about."

>> Read more: Massive manipulation, foreign influence campaign and cyber: The threats to Israel's election ■ The main cyber threats putting Israel's upcoming election at risk more than ever

Cyber threats to Israel's election

"Following reports this evening, the Shin Bet would like to make clear that the State of Israel and he intelligence community have the tools and capabilities to identify, monitor and thwart foreign influence efforts, should there be any," a statement released by the Shin Bet said. "The Israeli defense apparatus is able to enable democratic and free elections to be held in Israel."  

Ahead of April's election, Israeli cybersecurity company Check Point Software Technologies crafted a study noting the likely threats based on interference in other countries’ recent elections. Company researchers pointed to several prominent threats, including potential voter data breaches, hacking of political parties' networks, denial-of-service attacks, and the dissemination of disinformation.

Israel still uses paper ballots rather than digital systems, so the only opportunity for a hacking attack comes before actual polling. The vulnerabilities are in the computerized lists of voters, its distribution to polling places and tabulation of the results, said Gal Fenigshtein, a Check Point intelligence analyst.

“The information in databases like these is significant; for example, voters’ birthdate, place of residence, voting place and so forth,” she said. “The minute you have information on so many voters, you can create a connection with them, send text messages to them and try to influence their opinions.”

According to Check Point's researchers, what might present the biggest threat comes from people trying to manipulate opinions by distributing misleading information online; for example, by using fake Facebook profiles.

Lotem Finkelshtein, who is responsible for threat intelligence at the company, said the number of bots – fictitious social media users – could be enormous. Bots can be set up and maintained for three or four years and activated as an election gets underway.

“The challenge is to maintain credibility and public trust in the process,” he said. “Sometimes it’s enough to force down a government site for a few hours in order to instill public doubts about the cleanliness of the system.”

Last year, IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot told members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that he believes that Israel must be prepared for the possibility of foreign influence via cyberattacks. Eisenkot mentioned similar incidents that had occured in the U.S., France, and Ukraine. He did not explicitly mention a specific country responsible, but all these incidents had been previously attributed to Russia.

Last month, Tamir Pardo, the former chief of the Mossad espionage agency, said that Russia deployed tens of thousands of bots to influence the 2016 U.S. elections in favor of Donald Trump. Pardo said the Kremlin took a look at the political map in Washington, "and thought, which candidate would we like to have sitting in the White House? Who will help us achieve our goals? And they chose him. From that moment, they deployed a system [of bots] for the length of the elections, and ran him for president."