Massive Manipulation, Foreign Influence Campaign and Cyber: The Threats to Israel's Election

What's behind the Shin Bet chief warning that a 'foreign country' intends to intervene in the Israeli election

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks on the phone with a teenager who visited a presidential plane to film its interiors in Luhansk, Russia, December 25, 2018.
Alexei Druzhinin,AP

UPDATE: 'Foreign country' intends to intervene in Israeli elections, Shin Bet chief says

It’s Election Day April 9 and you’re told when you come to cast your ballot, “Sorry, you don’t appear on the voter rolls – you can’t vote.” Before that you’ve been deluged by text messages from a candidate, but they’ve been sent by his rivals in the hope you’ll protest the annoyance by voting against. The next day, the Central Elections Committee says it’s having trouble collecting the results.

These things may not happen when Israelis go to the polls, but the odds are growing that at least some of them will. More than at any time in the past, Israel’s election system is exposed to a cybersecurity risk during the campaigning, including the process of vote counting.

The Israeli cybersecurity company Check Point Software Technologies has crafted a study noting the likely threats based on the experience of other countries’ elections in recent years and suggests steps Israel can take to prevent them.

“Major events like these are of great interest to attackers because they can make a big mark in economic or political terms,” said Lotem Finkelshtein, who is responsible for threat intelligence at the company. “The more the system is computerized, the more vulnerable points there are.”

Cyber threats to Israel's election

Check Point researchers see the threat coming from two sources. One is so-called hacktivists who seek to manipulate election results for ideological reasons. In addition, there are hackers who aim to undermine elections for fame, or because they see it as a challenge.

There is also the risk of other countries – like Iran, Russia and China – seeking to influence the outcome of elections or undermine confidence in the democratic process. Check Point regards them as the biggest threats because they have the most money and people.

Voter data breach

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 opinion.”

That’s what happened in the Philippines three years ago when hackers affiliated with Anonymous broke into the election database and exposed information like passport numbers belonging to 70 million voters. The idea was to undermine confidence in the system.

A worker stacks ballot boxes in a warehouse in Shoham, near Tel Aviv January 29, 2009.
Baz Ratner / REUTERS

In any case, noted Fenigshtein, as Israel’s population grows, paper ballots will become too cumbersome. Digital voting will have to be adopted, even if there are risks.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, hackers got access to voter databases in 39 states, and in Illinois they stole personal information about more than 15 million people.

Party system hack

Even now, party primaries are computerized and present hackers with another tempting target. The vulnerability lies in the parties’ internal networks, as the U.S. Democratic National Committee learned in 2016 when embarrassing information about Hillary Clinton was leaked.

“Most penetration into networks is done through a weak link in the [cybersecurity] chain where malware can be installed,” Check Point says in its report. “All it takes is access to a single computer in the network to spread to others.”

An attempted rerun of the DNC leak hit French President Emmanuel Macron's campaign a day before the 2017 election, when hackers leaked hundreds of documents and emails. At least some of it has been suspected as false information, allegedly spread in order to influence voters. 

Denial-of-service attacks

Unlike the general election, most parties' primary election systems are computerized, and therefore more susceptible to cyber attacks, researchers say.

Vote count is also exposed, to some extent. Though it is conducted manually, the summation of votes is conducted over computerized systems. Finkelshtein says information security must be factored in to the design of electoral systems. "Even if it doesn't happen in the upcoming election, eventually, with population growth, Israel would no longer be able to handle the manual count and the election will be completely digitized," he adds.

Official sites are also vulnerable to denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks or, even worse, to actual break-ins to manipulate them. In Israel’s 2018 local elections, the government site showing turnout wasn’t hacked but it couldn’t handle the heavy traffic and was inaccessible to the public for several hours.

“The sites show percentages of voter turnout in a way that could cause people to decide to go to the polls or not. It’s another way to influence the chances of a candidate,” the Check Point report says.

Manipulation

In the end, however, what might present the biggest threat comes from people trying to manipulate opinions by disseminating misleading information online; for example, by using fake Facebook profiles.

Finkelshtein 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 month, former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo explained how Russia manipulated the 2016 U.S. elections and deployed tens of thousands of bots to influence the results in favor of Donald Trump. "They 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."

The ex-Mossad head said that “what we’ve seen so far with respect to bots and the distortion of information is just the tip of the iceberg. It is the greatest threat of recent years, and it threatens the basic values that we share – democracy and the world order created since World War Two."

How to protect?

Whether we like it or not, researchers say the upcoming election will be influenced by bot activity, and voters must be prepared for it. “The battle for public opinion is taking place in a gray area between legitimate attempts at persuasion and breaking into accounts and forging messages,“ the Check Point report says.

“We have to realize that even if the influence of interest groups on social networks can’t be avoided, it can be reduced by looking at the credibility and trustworthinness of the information presented to us by algorithms."

Check Point calls on voters to be on the lookout for fake news: "Biased writing, which is usually emotional or interpretative, can be identified." Another suspicious sign is oddly translated texts and misspellings, which might suggest it had originally been written in a different language and translated using machine translation.

Researchers specifically urge parties and candidates to employ cyber defense, saying a large proportion of past breaches they've studies could have easily been prevented by avoiding emails from unknown sources and suspicious files and installing security software.