Israel's Shin Bet security service assured the public Wednesday it was well prepared to thwart any foreign intervention in the country's upcoming elections, after its director warned a world power was making such efforts.
The statement followed reports that Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman recently told a closed audience that a foreign country was trying to intervene in the April elections and that operatives were trying to meddle via hackers and cyber technology.
"The Shin Bet would like to make clear that the state of Israel and the intelligence community have the tools and capabilities to identify, monitor and thwart foreign influence efforts, should there be any," it said.
"The Israeli defense apparatus is able to guarantee democratic and free elections are held in Israel." Argaman did not say for whose benefit the alleged meddling was being done. Initial reports about his comments were placed under a military gag order that was later lifted, though the naming of the country is question is still prohibited.
Even so, suspicion immediately fell on Russia, which is accused of trying to influence the 2016 American election in favour of Donald Trump, the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom and other recent European elections.
"We demand that the security forces make sure Putin doesn't steal the election for his friend, the dictator Bibi," said Tamar Zandberg, head of the dovish Meretz party, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname.
Netanyahu is far ahead in the polls at the moment, and does not appear to need any outside help.
Israel is a cyber superpower with a governmental cyber defense body. It still uses paper ballots on election day rather than digital systems, so it would seem better prepared for a potential offensive than others.
But it could still be vulnerable to other types of pre-election intervention, like hacking into party databases, spreading disinformation through social media and leaking personal and embarrassing material on the candidates, said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert on technology policy at the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute.
"Russia is trying throughout all the Western countries to undermine the public's trust in liberal democracy," she said. "There is no doubt they will try to do here what they have done in other countries."
The Israeli warning came just days after Twitter suspended an account that posted links to sensitive personal data and documents stolen by hackers from hundreds of German public figures and politicians from every political party but the far-right Alternative for Germany.
Germany has seen mounting cyberattacks on government and parliament computer systems since 2014 in which Kremlin-backed hackers were suspected. France also fended off a pre-2017 election hacking effort against Emmanuel Macron that was attributed to Russia.
Shwartz Altshuler said Israel's major systems appeared safe, but that outside companies working for various parties had the same kind of resources as those working for Russia to sow havoc in a campaign. She called for tougher laws to be passed against politically-driven cyber activity.
"We are a start-up nation when it comes to technology but we are behind the curve in terms of digital legislation," she said.
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