Cyber, Lies & Elections

Following the recent scandal involving the alleged hacking into Benny Gantz's mobile phone, and in anticipation of future scandals, Amir Rapaport’s special column delves into the truths and lies about cyber and the elections

Photo: AP

Cyber is starring prominently in the current election campaign, but the recent reports regarding the alleged hacking into Benny Gantz's mobile phone are packed with spins and half-truths, at best. So what's true and what's less accurate in the recent series of reports regarding this affair?

"These days, cyber has a profound effect on election campaigns"

Very true. In fact, the cyber era, where billions of people and devices are interconnected through the Internet, and where computers possess massive storage and computation capacities, has changed every aspect of our lives. Its effect is particularly evident in election campaigns.

According to Arik Barbing, formerly the Head of the Cyber Division and commander of the Jerusalem Region at ISA (Shin Bet), more commonly known as "Harris" from his (not too distant) past service with ISA, cyber is an inseparable part of any election campaign. The massive Russian influence on the 2016 presidential elections in the USA is currently being investigated, for example, in an attempt to find out whether the Russians had, in fact, decided the outcome of the US elections.

Recent reports have indicated that cyber activity had influenced the positions of the British public in connection with the UK's withdrawal from the European Union ("Brexit"). In Germany and France, too, there has been talk regarding the massive influence of cyber tools on the elections in those countries.

The use of cyber tools is expected to intensify in future election campaigns. The contestants and other elements (businesses and state organs) worldwide will employ them to promote their respective interests, and harm their opponents – in some cases, while distorting the reality or even creating a virtual reality. This compounds the danger of hacking into the voting computers and vote counting centers, to intentionally manipulate the actual results.

The danger is not just about hackers, but also involves the extensive use of fictitious entities, bots, to manipulate public moods and slander opponents. The web abounds with incorrect and false information, so we are facing a reality onto itself.

"Mobile phones, like Benny Gantz's phone, are easy to hack into"

Absolutely not. The manufacturers of the operating systems used in most mobile phones, Apple and Android, invest fortunes in cybersecurity. On the other hand, massive resources are invested in means for hacking them. A glimpse of the cost associated with this activity was provided recently by the valuation of NSO, an Israeli company specializing in mobile phone hacking – at more than one billion dollars. This may lead to the conclusion that the price of the "service" can amount to millions of dollars. Accordingly – such hacking abilities are available to states, rather than to private individuals. Iran may definitely be included in the list of countries possessing such capabilities.

"The recent report was a surprise for Gantz"

Probably not. People in the know within Gantz's inner circle knew about the hack for a number of weeks, but did not anticipate the publicity (despite the fact that the ISA Chief had issued a rare warning regarding foreign involvement in the elections).

Now, the greatest concern involves additional steps that might embarrass Gantz. This could be the reason for the recent reports of alleged hacking into the telephones of Sarah and Yair Netanyahu. If that leak came from the direction of the "Blue-and-White" party, then it must have been a bluff – an empty threat.

We should also bear in mind the fact that Benny Gantz is not "innocent" as far as these matters are concerned. The company he headed, until it closed down, specialized, among other things, in hacking into cellular telephones, and for that reason, NSO had considered acquiring it.

Gantz should also know one or two things about this subject from his days in the IDF.

"Iran is interested in influencing the election campaign in Israel"

Absolutely. This has always been the case (refer, for example, to the 1996 elections, when the Head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate in those days, Moshe Ya'alon, claimed that Iran was initiating terrorist attacks in order to influence the results of the elections – back then, in favor of Netanyahu opposite Shimon Peres).

It is not just Iran – intervening in the elections of other countries has become so easy in the cyber era, that it is actually difficult to avoid.

"Netanyahu is in charge of the Cyber Directorate, so he is using it to embarrass Gantz"

Half true, possibly not even that. To the same extent, Netanyahu is in charge of the ISA. The state organ responsible for preventing espionage, including Iranian activity (in cyberspace, too) is ISA – not the National Cyber Directorate. The ISA refused to comment on the alleged leak this week. The National Cyber Directorate provided the following response: "The Directorate has not addressed this issue, nor has it discussed any aspect of it with the Prime Minister."

"The Gantz scandal is only at its outset"

That is highly probable. Former Member of Knesset and Cyber investor Dr. Erel Margalit had anticipated, a few months in advance, an event of this type in the context of the Israeli elections.

Erel currently estimates that the report of the leak was intended to "launder" some embarrassing details obtained from Gantz's phone, which will probably be publicized soon. Was that the intention? If it were – would three former Chiefs of Staff, backed by an army of consultants, be able to prevent it?

It is by no means certain that all of these questions will be answered – not even on April 9.