Social Media, Hackers Threaten Israeli Election

Thursday, March 21, 2019 |  David Lazarus

Just like in the US elections, Israeli politicians are now communicating almost exclusively with voters through social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Traditional news outlets now quote social media posts for news on the candidates more often than conducting old-style interviews, or reporting on town hall meetings or stump speeches.

But all is not well in the fast-paced world of the web, as dependency on these technologies can be as dangerous as it is convenient, as seen in this week’s Israeli headlines, some of which read:

"Facebook Demands Netanyahu Stop Collecting User Data"
"Facebook Forced to Apply Transparency Tool in Israel’s Election Campaigns"
"Benny Gantz’s Phone is Hacked by Iran"
"Ehud Barak’s Phone and Computer Hacked: Info Sold to Iran"

Facebook has taken some significant and controversial steps to try and avoid the kind of foreign influence and fake news that might have influenced the US presidential election. The social media giant has applied a filter that limits who can post political ads to the Israeli public. All candidates, and anyone wanting to post a political ad, must first confirm his or her identity with an official government-approved ID. Facebook defines political ads as those advocating or opposing candidates in an election. Non-Israelis are completely blocked from taking out ads for or against any of the Israeli candidates.

Facebook has also increased transparency by requiring all political ads to include a disclaimer acknowledging the name of the account that funded the ad. The popular social media platform has also made an archive available so that users can search for all advertisements paid for by politicians dating back seven years.

But the problems don’t stop here. We all remember how the hacking and release of hordes of emails from the computer server and telephone of US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton caused a major upheaval in their 2016 election. Hacking has now become a critical issue for Israeli politicians, as well.

The Israeli Security Agency, or Shabak, revealed this week that the smartphone of frontrunner Benny Gantz was hacked by the Iranians. Officials are claiming the information on his phone was private and did not pose a threat to national security. However, it is nerve-wracking, to say the least, to learn that Iran was able to get into the smartphone of such a high-profile person as Gantz, who in addition to being Netanyahu's main challenger for the job of prime minister is a former Chief of Staff of the IDF. Netanyahu and all the parties that support him are understandably having a field day, happily questioning that if Gantz was so haphazard with his phone, how can he be trusted to protect the country?

Like Gantz, we also learned this week that the cellphone and personal computer of Ehud Barak, also a former IDF Chief of Staff, were hacked.

According to reports, Iran did not hack the former prime minister’s computer and phone, but bought the information from a third party. The stolen content reportedly did not contain anything sensitive from a security perspective, and the breach was not due to any negligence on Barak’s part. But, again, what is going on and why can’t Israel’s renowned hi-tech specialists protect our most important government and military officials? It seems that even Israel’s famed cyber protection is not yet able to keep up with the ever-present worldwide threats.

Already in January, Nadav Argaman, head of the Israel Security Agency, anticipated hackers meddling in the April 9 election, but even with this foreknowledge, Iranian cyberattacks succeeded in reaching high-level phones and computers, and these are only the attacks we know about. Expect to hear about an Israeli cyber response against Iran in the not-too-distant future.

It is well-known that Netanyahu does not carry a smartphone, and for good reason. Perhaps all government officials and security personnel need to follow his lead until we figure out how to protect sensitive information. In the meantime, thank goodness for the old-fashioned foresight of the IDF, which only uses its own land-based closed system for all high-level security communications.

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