If we want to preserve a healthy democratic process, and especially public trust that it is possible to hold fair elections in this country, democracy must stand up and protect itself.
The hacking of Benny Gantz’s cellphone is a story that just had to be told, splashed in giant letters on the wall. Digital technology has created incredible opportunities for the enemies of democracy. While in recent weeks we have been preoccupied with bots and fake Facebook accounts, the best way to undermine the public’s trust in the establishment and politics, as well as politicians’ and candidates’ self-confidence, is to hack into servers and accounts and then purloin and leak private information. The incident of Gantz’s cellphone recalls the hacking of the computers of the Democratic National Committee in the United States and how the release of the materials stolen affected Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president. It also resembles similar attempts before the 2017 presidential election in France and in the German elections a few months ago. In a campaign season, every candidate is a target and every hack can be a PR hit in the best case, or undermine the public’s confidence in the fairness of the democratic process in the worst case.
The thing is that we have had plenty of time to learn from others, but seem to be unable to internalize the need to deal with the issue of attempts to subvert our elections. We lack appropriate legislation, adequate inter-agency cooperation, and sufficient transparency, and there has never been a proper and serious discussion of the role the institutional media in such cases. To date, our reaction to the impact of digital media on the elections has been that of a third-world country and not of the start-up nation.
The Central Elections Committee does not have sufficient authority to deal with this matter. Far-reaching and vigorous decisions are need merely to require that propaganda on social networks be labeled as such. The Cyber Directorate, a unit in the Prime Minister’s Office that is supposed to counter attacks on computer systems and secure Israel’s digital assets, has no statutory basis and the extent of its powers is far from clear. What is left? The General Security Service, the well-known fighter for democracy that operates in the shadows and is directly subordinate to the Prime Minister, with its behind-the-scenes battles against the Cyber Directorate for power, authority, and budgets? We could also mention the IDF, the Israel Police, and the Cybercrimes Unit in the State Prosecutor’s Office: but I’m sure you’ve got the message.
Why was it the GSS that contacted Gantz to inform him of the security breach? For that matter, who was responsible for securing this sensitive cellphone? Who should be warning senior politicians and parties and showing them how to protect their data? Why are there repeated failures in this domain (don’t forget that the Likud computer system was hacked during its primaries)?
It must be remembered that this is more than just a lack of coordination among multiple agencies. The question is who is responsible for assembling all the pieces into a big picture and figuring out whether there has been an attempt to sabotage our elections. Who is supposed to parry the threat that the spread of disinformation or of information obtained by breaking into a computer could make a farce of the democratic system? Who is supposed to notify the public about such events in real time and explain what is going on? That there is no answer to this question today opens the door wide to conspiracy theories on all sides. The security agencies do not have a tradition of releasing credible and organized information to the public so that we can know what is happening, which leads to an active rumor mill. Was there or wasn’t there a sex video in the telephone that was hacked?
The hacking of the cellphone of a public figure is a classic example that a technology-based incident is sometimes more than a matter of technology. Netanyahu’s claim that Iran supports Gantz, and, from the other side, the charges that this was an intentional leak from the Prime Minister’s circle, demonstrate that it is impossible to distinguish interference by hostile foreign countries from efforts by actors. Right now it really doesn’t matter who is involved—the Kremlin or the extreme right, Iran or local players. Whatever the answer, the techniques are similar, it takes time to trace their source, and, above all, there is a feedback reverberation between locals and foreigners.
Even if agencies like the Cyber Directorate and GSS try to avoid intervention in election content, because of its political sensitivity, it is not always possible to draw a dividing line between techniques and content. During an election campaign these agencies find themselves in an impossible situation because they are directly subordinate to the Prime Minister, who is a very interested party during this season. We can already see how the present contest has brought the challenges of digital influence on the elections to new and dangerous places.
In the coming days we will be receiving a succession of leaks about what was found in the cellphone that was hacked—or what some people say was there. Israeli journalists will have to ask themselves the question that their American colleagues debated in 2016, their French colleagues in 2017, and the Germans two months ago. Should we publish the information? Of course the moment journalists get their hands on verified personal information about public figures, it needs to be published as a function of its public relevance. If we have mercy on politicians, no one will finally understand how important it is to invest in data securitization. But should the media become a tool manipulated by those who want to undermine democracy itself? Should they report on such data breaches and trumpet them to the world?
If we want to preserve a healthy democratic process, and especially public trust that it is possible to hold fair elections in this country, democracy must stand up and protect itself and, until Election Day, play the part of a democracy on the defensive. The chair of the Central Elections Committee must immediately assume the authority, even in the absence of explicit statutory backing, to convene a forum of all the relevant agencies, extract the big picture, and deal with incidents like this in real time. And, of course, he must keep the public posted. After the election, we will need a serious legislative effort to deal with such challenges. First, though, we need to get there in peace.