Covertly, Israel prepares to fight boycott activists online

AP News
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Posted: Feb 17, 2016 8:22 AM
Covertly, Israel prepares to fight boycott activists online

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel is using its world-leading expertise in cyber security to take on the growing threat of the global pro-Palestinian movement to boycott Israel.

The Israeli government recently allotted nearly $26 million in this year's budget to combat what it sees as worldwide efforts to "delegitimize" the Jewish state's right to exist. Some of the funds are earmarked for Israeli tech companies, many of them headed by former military intelligence officers, for digital initiatives aimed at gathering intelligence on activist groups and countering their efforts.

"I want to create a community of fighters," said Sima Vaknin-Gil, the director general of Israel's Ministry for Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, to Israeli tech developers at a forum last month dedicated to the topic.

Initiatives are largely being kept covert. Participants at the invite-only forum, held on the sidelines of a cyber technology conference, repeatedly stood up to remind people that journalists were in the room.

Among the government officials involved in the efforts are some of Israel's top secret-keepers, including Sima Shine, a former top official in the Mossad spy agency, and Vaknin-Gil, who recently retired as the chief military censor responsible for gag orders on state secrets.

Israel has established itself as a world leader in cyber technology innovation, fueled by graduates of prestigious and secretive military and security intelligence units. These units are widely thought to be behind some of the world's most advanced cyber-attacks, including the Stuxnet virus that attacked Iran's nuclear energy equipment last decade.

Each year, these units churn out a talent pool of Israelis who translate their skills to the corporate world. Now Israel is looking to harness their technological prowess for the fight to protect Israel's international image.

Vaknin-Gil said her ministry is encouraging initiatives to expose the funding and curb the activities of anti-Israel activists, as well as campaigns to "flood the Internet" with content that puts a positive face on Israel. She said some of these actions will not be publicly identified with the government, but that the ministry will not fund unethical or illegal digital initiatives.

Established about 10 years ago, the pro-Palestinian "BDS" campaign is a coalition of organizations that advocate boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Inspired by the anti-apartheid movement, BDS organizers say they are using nonviolent means to promote the Palestinian struggle for independence.

The movement has grown into a global network of thousands of volunteers, from campus activists to church groups to liberal Jews disillusioned by Israeli policies. They lobby corporations, artists and academic institutions to sever ties with Israel.

The movement has made inroads. U.S. and British academic unions have endorsed boycotts, student governments at universities have made divestment proposals, and some famous musicians have refused to perform in Israel. The BDS movement also claims responsibility for pressuring some large companies to stop or modify operations in Israel. In its latest push, it has urged top Hollywood actors to reject a government-paid trip to Israel being offered to leading Oscar nominees.

Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement, said "quite a few web pages" that BDS websites linked to have mysteriously disappeared from the Internet.

"We assume Israel's cyber sabotage is ongoing, but we are quite pleased that its detrimental impact on the global BDS movement has been dismal so far," he said.

Israel says the movement is rooted in anti-Semitism and seeks not to change Israeli policies, but ultimately to put an end to the Jewish state.

Many online activists driving anti-Israeli campaigns on social media are tech-savvy, second- and third-generation Muslims in Europe and the U.S. who have grievances against the West and also lead online campaigns against European and U.S. governments, said Elad Ratson, who tracks the issue for Israel's Foreign Ministry and spoke at last month's cybersecurity forum.

He said they often create code that allows activists to blast thousands of messages from social media accounts — creating the illusion that many protesters are sharing the same anti-Israel or anti-West message online.

Israeli officials lobby Facebook to remove pages it says incite violence against Israelis, and there has been talk of advancing legislation to restrict Facebook in Israel. A Facebook representative met with Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan in Israel last week about the matter.

Ratson said social media giants are beginning to close inciting users' accounts. Twitter said in a statement this month that since mid-2015, it has closed more than 125,000 accounts that were "threatening or promoting terrorist acts, primarily related to ISIS," the Islamic State group. But he said Islamist activists are simply moving to "Darknet" sites not visible on the open internet.

Some Israeli tech companies are starting to build sly algorithms to restrict these online activists' circle of influence on the "Darknet," so activists think their message is reaching others when in fact it is being contained, Ratson said.

Other Israeli companies work on forensic intelligence gathering, such as detecting digital or semantic signatures buried in activists' coding so they are able to track and restrict their online activity.

Firewall Israel, a non-profit initiative sponsored by the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, is building an online platform to help pro-Israel activists around the world communicate about anti-Israel activism in their communities. At a recent event the initiative held at Campus Tel Aviv, a Google-sponsored event space for entrepreneurs, an Israeli web expert taught young activists how to mine the internet for BDS activities.

"Delegitimizers are engaged in a Disneyland of hate," Igal Ram of Firewall Israel told seminar participants. "We want to act against the people who run the Disneyland ... and the useful idiots who help."

Inspiration, an Israeli intelligence analysis company founded by Ronen Cohen and Haim Pinto, former military intelligence officers, launched a technological initiative some months ago to collect intelligence on BDS organizations in Europe, particularly Scandinavian countries, the U.S., and South America, Cohen said. He said the initiative aims to dismantle the infrastructure of groups he said were responsible for incitement and anti-Semitism against Israel. He declined to give specifics.

"It's no different than an operation, which you sometimes read about in the newspaper, in Syria or Lebanon," Cohen said. "It's the kind of thing that, if you want to do it in the future ... you can't work in the open."

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Follow Daniel Estrin on Twitter at www.twitter.com/danielestrin