After weeks of intensive data collection, the Likud’s election campaign has shifted to the next phase: The campaign has started giving its activists the phone numbers of Israelis marked as potential voters, without the latters’ knowledge or consent. The activists are asked to call and find out whether these individuals intend to vote Likud, and then inform Likud of the response.
In light of the opinion polls, which predict an almost even number of seats for each bloc, Likud believes that it will have to persuade between 100,000 and 200,000 supporters who did not vote in the last election to come to this year's polls.
Although all the parties have been gathering similar information over the last few weeks, Likud’s operation is considered the most sophisticated and controversial, simultaneously working across a number of platforms – WhatsApp, TikTok, Telegram, a dedicated website for activists and an app - to oversee their political data operations.
The first phase of the operation was pinpointing who those thousands of past supporters are, in order to reach out to them. In previous election campaigns, Likud encouraged its activists to download a special app for smartphones called Elector. The app allows those who download it to share with the Likud their entire contact list and mark which of them support Likud. The information was leaked online a number of times, which resulted in Likud being fined (as was Yisrael Beiteinu). The party has been much more cautious in the current election campaign, relaunching the app under the name V22, which functions in the same way.
In tandem, a key intelligence gathering tool the Likud uses in this election round is called 'Bibigram,' an automated channel and chatbot running on the instant messaging app Telegram, which allows Likud to collect information from its activists about potential Likud voters - as it did with Elector. The Likud campaign is active on every possible social media platform including Facebook and instant messaging apps in order to herd its supporters to the so-called Bibigram and provide it with valuable personal information.
During the first stage, a new Bibigram user conducts a faux conversation with a chatbot emulating Netanyahu - and is then asked to provide the Bibigram with details about relatives and acquaintances they know have voted Likud in the past but are wavering this election. These individuals’ contact details are shared with Likud without their knowledge or consent.
Likud activists who showed an interest in helping the party received a message last week via Bibigram, to contact people that were marked - by others - as wavering on whether to vote Likud. Along with the person’s first name and phone number, Likud gave the activists bullet points for how to conduct the conversation.
People familiar with Israel’s privacy laws say that the fact that Likud provides only a first name with the phone number is intended to avoid breaking those laws – although these people did not allow anyone to give out their name and number as potential Likud voters.
'This is apparently kosher, but it stinks,' said a political adviser working with parties in the current election. According to another knowledgeable individual, as long as the person receiving the call understands that it concerns Likud political activity, and as long as the person continues the conversation of their own free will, no privacy laws have been broken.
The activists are told to introduce themselves and explain 'why I support Likud and a stable and strong government for four years.' They are not instructed to say they are calling at the behest of Likud or that they received the phone number from Bibigram. The activists are also asked to 'destroy the information at the end of Election Day.'
At the end of the conversation with the potential Likud voter, the activist is asked to go back to Bibigram and update the system about whether the call was successful, so Likud can go back and persuade the wavering voter by other means if necessary.
This constitutes another problem: After receiving the preliminary information, collected, as noted, without the permission of the potential voter, the caller now feeds Bibigram back with more political information, again without the voter’s consent.
On Wednesday, Likud supporters who had previously connected with Bibigram received a personal message from Netanyahu, explicitly calling on them to share with him the contact details of a person they think would vote for Likud. 'Urgent mission. We ask you to send us contact details of Likud supporters who are wavering, and unsure they will vote on Nov 1. How to send us the contact? It’s easy! Just like WhatsApp, click on the attachment icon below, pick a contact person and send. We will make sure to call them and convince them to go out and vote Likud'. A similar message was tweeted from Netanyahu’s personal account.
As noted earlier, the individuals selected did not consent to the Likud gathering their contact details and political stance, and the Likud is doing so without their knowledge.
Haaretz called dozens of phone numbers that the Bibigram channel passed on to activists to call. 'What? Of course I didn’t approve of anyone doing this,' one person said when he heard Likud had given his name and number to activists he does not know. Another person said: 'Parties call all the time, sometimes it’s Bibi and sometimes Gantz – but I never asked anyone to call me.' A third person said: 'I have no idea what you’re talking about'. Few of the numbers were disconnected, while all others were answered by people who confirmed their name but would not comment.
The Privacy Protection Authority hasn’t yet responded to a query from Haaretz on the matter. Likud did not respond to a request for comment..
It should be noted that privacy issues in Israel, like matters of fairness of the election, are examined only when an official complaint is made to the relevant agency, in this case, the Privacy Protection Authority. In a recent appeal to the authority, experts have also claimed that giving Bibigram feedback about the get-out-to-vote call was an infringement of privacy, since those 'potential supporters' did not give their consent to it, and because an Israeli citizen’s political stance is considered sensitive information. As noted earlier, Likud voter databases have already been leaked to the web in previous election rounds.