By Yossi Melman
February 17, 2020 “Information Clearing House” – The leaks of personal information of 6.5 million Israelis three weeks before the election is one of the worst security screw-ups in the country in the last few years.
Both the first breach, which was reported about a week ago, and the more serious second one, reported Sunday, stem from criminal negligence by Elector Software – a small and hitherto barely known company that developed the mobile election software being used by Likud and other parties.
This app, which enables access to the country’s entire voter registry, is used “to run elections and make contact with voters,” according to the company. It includes voters’ full names, ID numbers, gender, telephone numbers and current addresses. In addition, there is information entered by party campaign staff about whether or not the individual in question supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Beyond the severe violation of Israelis’ privacy, the hacking of the voter rolls has unprecedented implications for tens of thousands of employees of the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service, the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, the Israel Institute for Biological Research and the Israel Defense Forces – especially for pilots, intelligence personnel, special forces and nuclear scientists. The damage caused by the breaches doesn’t end with exposure of information: Exposure of such data also enables potentially hostile elements to access additional sources of information, and to cross-check sensitive details including license plate numbers, personal and corporate assets and confidential medical information.
The potential damage is enormous. This is a gold mine for enemies like Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence, as well as for intelligence agencies that are more or less friendly to Israel.
It’s also well known that such espionage bodies, especially the Mossad, use fake or borrowed identities for their operations. According to foreign reports, these operations have in the past been aimed mainly at monitoring, information-gathering, infiltrating buildings, buying sensitive equipment and so forth.It’s no secret that the Mossad and other Israeli intelligence and security organizations make use of the data in the Interior Ministry’s Population Registry. This information enables them to recruit employees both in Israel and abroad.
In the past three decades, Mossad agents have been exposed while carrying forged passports of Canada, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, France, Ireland, Bosnia, Georgia and more. Some operatives were arrested. Some were exposed during or after operations in countries such as Jordan, Britain, Sudan, Cyprus, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia and, according to foreign media, Dubai and Tunisia.
The leak of such information about Israeli citizens and the possibility of connecting it to activities conducted overseas under an Israeli or foreign identity is disastrous for the intelligence community. Thanks to this information, foreign intelligence agencies can thwart operations abroad and/or catch the agents involved.
Moreover, cross-checking the leaked information with documents published or stolen in the past can enable hostile agencies to identify not just living people, but also dead people whose identities are being used in secret missions to conceal or verify cover stories.
That, for instance, is what Refaat el-Gammal, an Egyptian intelligence agent, did when he posed as a Jew named Jack Beaton who emigrated to Israel in the 1950s. Fortunately, the Shin Bet discovered him and turned him into a double agent who worked for Israel against his Egyptian handlers.
And when the Mossad assassinated senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010, it was reported that one of the operatives had assumed the identity of an Israeli who had been killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The “soft underbelly” of national security that this latest breach has potentially exposed can be demonstrated by the case of the 2015 leak from a major human resources company that recruited personnel for U.S. intelligence and defense agencies. It was suspected that the information reached Chinese intelligence; as a result, the CIA had to recall some of its agents.
The principle underlying the intelligence community anywhere, including in Israel, is that as soon as there’s a fear that hacked information has reached hostile or any foreign parties, extra precautions must be employed so as not to endanger its personnel. For this reason, in numerous cases in the past where there was the suspected exposure of networks of agents run by Israel in foreign countries, especially hostile ones – not only was the affected network shut down, but also any others with contacts to it.
Who’s meddling here?
In the course of the groundhog day 2019-20 election campaigns in Israel, there have been several incidents emitting a nasty stench of political espionage. Even before this, then-Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich had charged in a television interview that an unidentified person had hired private detectives to keep tabs on the investigations into suspected crimes committed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Netanyahu, who has now been indicted for the crimes, and his Likud party, vehemently denied the accusations.
In November 2018, a hastily constructed website in Panama published a false report that former Mossad director Tamir Pardo had claimed in a lecture at Harvard that former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman had resigned because he was suspected of being a Russian spy. Thereafter, Lieberman, who is proud of having an ancient cellphone rather than a smartphone, claimed that this wasn’t an isolated incident; unknown individuals had also tried to hack into his Yisrael Beiteinu party’s computers to disrupt its April 2019 election campaign.
Then came the bizarre hacking of Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz’s cellphone before the April 2019 election and its exposure in the media. Even today, it’s still not clear whether Iran was really behind that act, or whether someone had leaked the information to Tehran to cover his tracks.
Israel likes to boast of its cybersecurity industry and of being at the forefront of global technology. Moreover, at least seven public agencies are engaged in cyberwarfare and information security for both defensive and offensive purposes: the National Cyber Directorate, the Mossad and the Shin Bet (these three are all under the prime minister’s auspices); Military Intelligence (under the IDF’s responsibility); and the Defense Ministry’s department of field security. In addition, there are the Atomic Energy Commission, the Justice Ministry’s Privacy Protection Authority and the Central Elections Commission.
Once the incidents mentioned above became known, all the relevant agencies should have conducted a thorough investigation. After all, the victims – whom someone evidently wanted to smear – were a former defense minister, a former Mossad director and a former IDF chief who is now running for prime minister, as well as the Israeli electoral system as a whole.
However, the recent breaches involving the Elector app, despite attempts to downplay the damage, are on a completely different scale: They affect every Israeli citizen. From this standpoint, they recall the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This British company, which engaged in data mining, data analysis, data brokerage and communications strategies, used personal information purchased or leaked from Facebook to impact elections around the world.
Cambridge Analytica was founded in late 2013. It is partially owned by Robert Mercer and his family, which also owns Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s most profitable hedge funds. The family’s political leanings are extremely conservative; in 2016, it helped Donald Trump’s election campaign, mainly regarding identification of potential voters.
Elector Software is a small, obscure firm formed just before the first Israeli election 15 months ago. Its three registered directors are completely unknown to the public. Another former manager worked in the past for Likud. The company is registered in a small European city, and now its three directors have either disappeared or refuse to talk to the media.
When you combine all these facts, and others that haven’t been publicized – there’s almost no doubt that over the last year, a hidden hand has been meddling in Israel’s election campaigns.
In any self-respecting democracy, the very day a leak such as that involving the Elector app became known, all the relevant agencies mentioned here should have called emergency meetings to determine how and why a failure of such a magnitude occurred and what its implications are. Moreover, the heads of the intelligence community, led by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, should have convened to consider the severity of the potential harm caused to defense and security agencies both in the present and in the future.
But Israel with its superfluous and unnecessary number of agencies dealing with information security, and embroiled in ego and turf wars, seems to be unmoved. Not to mention the fact that the government has abdicated its responsibilities in this arena – and not for the first time. Thus, no such meetings or assessment were ever carried out, and it’s doubtful that they will be now, either.
In response, Likud said that “Elector is an outside supplier that provides services to many parties, including Likud. All professional and legal responsibility devolves upon it. Likud is making every effort, regarding data related to it and to its voters, to secure the information and ensure its complete protection in accordance with the law and accepted standards.”
The Mossad, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Shin Bet, the IDF, Military Intelligence and the Ministry of Defense refused to comment. The National Cyber Directorate did not respond to questions from Haaretz. Only the Central Electoral Commission said that the matter is not within their realm of responsibility. For its part, the Private Protection Authority said that any breach of privacy and leak of personal details is a serious matter.
This article was published by “Haaretz“-