A few weeks ago a message was sent out to every possible combination of phone numbers in Israel. The message, sent from what appears to be an account linked to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, lambasted his political rivals for the high cost of living. But that wasn't its real goal.
The message contained a link to the Telegram messaging app – and those who clicked on it were referred to Bibigram, a chatbot simulating a conversation with the former prime minister.
The text message, the link that it contained and the Telegram bot are all part of a much larger campaign playing out in Israel ahead of the country’s November 1 Knesset election. It’s not a political campaign – at least not yet – but rather a mad dash to create a political database of voter data.
In every election campaign, the Israeli government provides political parties with a dataset that includes the names, ID numbers and addresses of every eligible voter. But as was explained by one source who due to his work in Israel asked to remain anonymous, “The data provided as part of the voter registry is not enough to be able to actually manage a campaign in this digital day and age.”
“It costs a few thousand dollars to send a text message to every possible number in Israel,” said the source, who works in the shadowy data broker industry. The goal, the broker says, is to enhance the barebones dataset provided by the Israeli government.
For example, just sending text messages permits parties to verify the numbers that are actually active. That helps match names from the registry to the phone numbers. Those who have actually engaged with the Telegram bot provide more data and can subsequently be efficiently targeted as potential Likud supporters.
The ability to micro-target voters could be decisive in the election: Due to Israel’s multi-party coalition system, a shift of 100,000 to 200,000 votes can sometimes make a difference as to who the kingmaker to form the next government will be. Polling data and strategists suggest that Netanyahu’s only way back to power is to prompt about 150,000 potential Likud supporters who stayed home on Election Day the last time around in March 2021 to turn out to cast their ballot. That means that finding them is key to the strategy.
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The cross-platform data collection campaign is currently being conducted in every political party – but Likud is leading the pack. Just this week, such data-enhancing efforts were on full display on TikTok, where Netanyahu’s official account posted a video inviting followers to reach out via WhatsApp, the most popular messaging app in Israel. Followers who sent a screen capture to Netanyahu on WhatsApp confirming that they had signed up for the official Telegram bot would enter a drawing for a chance to have a “face-to-face video call” with the former prime minister.
The voter database provided to the parties is based on Israel’s official census and its use by political parties is overseen by the Justice Ministry, to which the Registrar of Databases and the Privacy Protection Authority report, and by the Interior Ministry.
There are actually strict rules governing how the voter database can be used, and parties need to commit to using it in a secure manner and ensure that the data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. And it’s deleted at the end of every election cycle. Only data that was legitimately obtained can be added to the database, and it can only be used for “voter outreach.”
The data itself is given to the parties on a physical CD drive. “That’s the only reason I still keep a CD reader,” another source active in the field quipped. Due to the limited nature of the data, a market has emerged to help parties either gather or purchase datasets to augment their political efforts.
The most famous of these is Elector. During the last Knesset election campaign, the Elector smartphone app permitted Likud party activists to feed in their contact list and mark who had already voted and who had not, thereby enabling the party to refine its get-out-the-vote effort and to call only those who hadn’t yet turned out.
Last week, Haaretz revealed that the election app has rebranded itself ahead of this election and is now called V22 (as in victory 2022). Some suggest that the app also includes old data that violates privacy rights, including for example data collected by Likud activists at polling stations regarding the hour at which people voted and other data that should have been deleted.
It’s close to impossible to actually ensure that the parties are complying with the election data laws, since the data is physically provided to them and compliance is up to the parties themselves.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute whose work focuses on the interface between politics and technology, warns that “parties are making use of data that also includes data regarding who actually voted, this despite the fact that this is data that per the law and their own commitments must be deleted.”
Elector is only one of a number of such software products that make it possible to manage, collect and also analyze voter data. Other firms offer similar software with differing capabilities. For example, the Israeli software firm YayaSoft creates systems such as LogiVote and YVote that help parties manage activists, while the platform Poliphone helps optimize robocalls and telemarketing efforts.
There’s nothing inherently wrong or problematic with these systems, political and industry sources say. The problem is that there is very little oversight and a great deal of abuse, they explain.
In 2020, the full Elector dataset was leaked – the first of a number of such leaks. The result, explains Shwartz Altshuler, was “an actual cybersecurity event.” She called it “tantamount to a leak of Israel’s census data, which is considered part of our critical infrastructure and a sensitive dataset.” The data can be used for anything from cybercrime to phishing campaigns and cyberattacks, she and cyber experts say.
Data brokers have said that since 2016, not only political parties can easily buy a fully parsed and annotated dataset containing complete data on more than a million Israelis. Potential clients include private detectives and law firms, they say. Data about more than 16,000 active Likud supporters can also be found online.
Other software helps organize and analyze the data. For example, datasets that can help link addresses or last names to likely political positions are for sale on the data market.
The Central Elections Committee, which oversees Israel’s elections and secures their integrity, is likely concerned by this state of affairs, but experts say its hands are tied as it can only act if an official complaint is filed. The Justice Ministry – specifically the Registrar of Databases and the Privacy Protection Authority – has regulatory responsibility for ensuring that parties don’t misuse the data or illegally gather or add to it.
But the State Comptroller’s Office recently reported that no parties had actually registered their updated databases. The report also expressed concern over the fact that six parties had passed data on to third-party vendors such as Elector. And Shwartz Altshuler says that it was passed along without ensuring that this was legal and without a commitment from the private firms to delete the data.
On the other hand, there are those who are less concerned by the data issue as such. Shmulik Vazana, the founder and CEO of Poliphone, calls out what he says is “anti-technology” bias on the part of the media and political activists over the matter.
“It doesn’t have to be a Big Brother scenario. If you think about it, it’s actually very good to give politicians data to facilitate better communications between them and voters. Technology can help them better understand what we want and allow them to be better civil servants.
“The potential privacy issues exist, but why are they more serious than the privacy infringements carried out by Facebook on a massive global scale every day?” Vazana asked. “For a politician to succeed, they need data and that data needs to be protected against hacks. We need to regulate and limit the use of the type of data that politicians can have or store. We need to make sure it’s fair and safe, but it is in the citizens’ interest that politicians are able to maintain communications with them,” rather than it being a problem.
The justice and interior ministries did not respond to this report.