As election campaign gets underway, Israel faces threats by hackers – Business

As election campaign gets underway, Israel faces threats by hackers - Business

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.”

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.

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.

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. 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.”

Official sites are vulnerable to denial-of-service 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.

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.

“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.”

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.”

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