By Hollie McKay
April 6, 2019
With the Israeli Presidential election just days away, cyber experts are warning about an uptick in Iranian cyber interference and the spread of disinformation.
“Iran is using tactics very similar, if not the same, that Russia used in the 2016 U.S. election,” Jeff Bardin, chief intelligence officer of Treadstone71 who specializes in Iranian activity, told Fox News. “Starting in January of 2017, Iran created a website that was very likely to kick off this effort – Countdown2040.com.”
The site still stands, although its associated social media pages – except for the Facebook-owned Instagram — have been suspended. The website is “dedicated to the prophetic belief that Israel will no longer be in existence by September of 2040,” Bardin said.
“Iran is using this platform to spread various messages of disunity about Israel. The way they follow the Russian disinformation and destabilization playbook is by accentuating the negative through social issues such as the divide between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews,” he said. “Discrimination against non-white, non-European Jews, discrimination, detention, and overall oppression of the Arab Minority, abnormal American aid, military infiltration and takeover of Israeli politics, water crisis and Israeli ‘slant drilling’ to take water from neighboring states, corruption at the highest levels, abortion rights, drug abuse, gay and lesbian rights and Israeli espionage against the US.”
And with the hotly contested elections set to take place April 9, so the evolving Iran cyber skills are on display.
“They [Iranians] are getting much better at mixing false content inside of real articles and titles while getting journalists to publish those articles on real news sites,” Bardin continued. “This is a concerted effort with online sock puppets, bots, continuous messaging across social media, and slightly changing content that keeps up with the news of the day. This is a combination of human placement and content adjustment and posting, with automated postings and auto-responses.”
Amir Rapaport, the Tel Aviv-based founder of Cybertech and defense analyst, concurred that “Iran has advanced cyber-capabilities which include information gathering and offensive maneuver hacking” orchestrated from both the public and private sectors. It’s tactics, intended to influence voters, center on “using bots on social media, impersonating as influencers in public debates online, and purchasing advertisements.”
Last week, Facebook announced it had shuttered more than 2,600 phony accounts linked to Iran, Russia, Macedonia and Kosovo that sought to sway political sentiment globally, noting that the accounts were a coordinated effort to “misrepresent themselves.” The tech giant also removed more than 500 dubious pages, many of which were part of a “manipulation campaign” concerning the Iran nuclear deal.
In January, Facebook also scrubbed away hundreds of accounts traced back to Iran that were part of a vast meddling effort. Less than three months earlier, 82 pages and groups were deleted for fraudulent, manipulative activity.
Some flagged accounts were reported to have over a million followers, and many sought to exacerbate the friction and hostility toward countries opposed to Tehran’s policies, a Reuters investigation revealed.
“Since September, Twitter has suspended 2,617 accounts linked to Iran. Some of the accounts claimed they were American outlets and discussed U.S. political and social issues,” noted Gary Miliefsky, executive producer of the Cyber Defense Magazine.
He also asserted that Iran’s offensive cyber activities are almost always exclusively overseen by the IRGC – likely without the oversight of the country’s public officials – and composed of a “scattered set of independent contractors who mix security work, criminal fraud, and more banal software development.”
Late last year, Israel’s leading security service, Shin Bet, suspected that the country’s archrival, Iran, was behind the mobile phone hacking of Benny Gantz, a former chief of Israel’s armed forces and the closest contender running against Netanyahu in the forthcoming election. After the news was leaked and tossed into the limelight of the campaign trail last month, Gantz’s political rivals have expressed concern that he could be comprised, yet his Blue and White party have dismissed any chatter of a national security breach or that any sensitive information was stolen.
However, it has since surfaced that a slew of other high-level Israeli officials had also been subject to possible Iranian-style infiltration.
“In the past, Iran has acted more like a sledgehammer in the cyber realm than a scalpel. They brutally attacked the Saudi ARAMCO oil firm with a virus that destroyed 25,000 computers in a single day,” observed Steve Bucci, a retired Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official – who is currently a visiting research fellow at The Heritage Foundation – in reference to the 2012 “Shamoon” cyber attack. “They are clearly upping their game, and are using subtler techniques. They are capable of very sophisticated action, and are more than capable of interfering.”
“To weaken Israel in any way they can. The Ayatollahs hate Bibi Netanyahu, and would do anything to cripple him,” Bucci said, adding that 2020 will likely also be on the radar. “Given that several Democratic candidates have vowed to reinstate the Obama Nuke deal, Iran has a vested interest in defeating President Trump.”