The Automatic Voter: ‘The Public Doesn’t Understand Just How it is being Manipulated.’

Whether or not the upcoming election provides Israel with a clear outcome, one thing has already been settled: the basic right of Israeli citizens to privacy is gone and will probably never be restored. An ever-increasing array of technologies are being used to locate, categorize and incentivize people to cast a vote – and these tools are collating layer upon layer of personal information about each and every one of us without our knowledge. A Shomrim investigation reveals the system used and why we will only find out about most of the manipulation in retrospect – if ever

Whether or not the upcoming election provides Israel with a clear outcome, one thing has already been settled: the basic right of Israeli citizens to privacy is gone and will probably never be restored. An ever-increasing array of technologies are being used to locate, categorize and incentivize people to cast a vote – and these tools are collating layer upon layer of personal information about each and every one of us without our knowledge. A Shomrim investigation reveals the system used and why we will only find out about most of the manipulation in retrospect – if ever

Whether or not the upcoming election provides Israel with a clear outcome, one thing has already been settled: the basic right of Israeli citizens to privacy is gone and will probably never be restored. An ever-increasing array of technologies are being used to locate, categorize and incentivize people to cast a vote – and these tools are collating layer upon layer of personal information about each and every one of us without our knowledge. A Shomrim investigation reveals the system used and why we will only find out about most of the manipulation in retrospect – if ever

Shahar Smooha

Prime Minister Yair Lapid (Left), Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Reutes, Screenshot from Elector website

September 29, 2022

Summary

With no fanfare, press release, or even press awareness, a compromise was reached this month, bringing a million-shekel class-action suit to an end. Around two years ago, 19 plaintiffs sued the Likud party, and a company called Elector for 1 million shekels over violations of their privacy during the 2020 election campaign. The suit was filed after the personal information of 6.4 million Israel voters was leaked from the company’s servers twice during the course of a single week.

It is still too early to know whether the current election campaign will once again bring to the surface the fact that Israel’s political parties appear to know a lot more about us than they should, and we would want them to. Even today, applications for tracking voters, like Elector, allow parties to add more and more layers of information to their legitimate databases, allowing them to target voters on an individual basis. At the same time, industry experts are warning that the violations of our privacy are far more profound and that they expose us to the possibility of being manipulated online, much like the cyber agents of Russian President Vladimir Putin influenced American voters in 2016. Today, like then, we have no way of knowing that this is happening in real-time – or ever.

How, then, do voter tracking applications like Elector work? A new version of the app will appear in online stores in the run-up to an election. Parties call on their supporters to download the latest version and once downloaded, the user is asked to allow the app to access their contact list, which is stored on the device. After that, users are asked to volunteer more and more information about themselves: to what extent they support the party, whether they are willing to volunteer for the party, and so on.

Users of the apps are also asked to share their best guess as to the political positions of their acquaintances without asking permission from them in advance. The terms and conditions of the app stipulate that the person uploading information about someone else must obtain that person’s permission and that the app developer and the party are not responsible for this condition not being met. Users can also add additional information about their acquaintances. For example, whether a certain user has mobility issues and needs assistance getting to the voting booth on Election Day. At first glance, this might appear to be a purely technical detail. In reality, it is a perfect example of sensitive personal information – especially when it is being divulge by someone without your knowledge. Elector users who upload a lot of information about potential voters are rewarded within the app and, much like ridesharing apps, are promoted up the app’s internal ladder.

On Election Day, the party is no longer interested in getting the data of potential voters or in expanding the information it has about them; rather, it will focus on whether those people who are already in the system have voted or not. Real-time reports from observers working for the party at the voting stations provide the answer to this question. If one of “your” voters (in other words, someone whose details you added to the system) has not yet exercised their democratic duty, the app will encourage you to reach out to them and try to persuade them to cast a vote. Any additional information – such as a possible disability, distance from the polling station, or anything else that may have been added to the database – can be of use.

“Every party can add another layer of information,” someone closely tied to Elector said in a conversation with Shomrim, “such as whether a voter needs help getting to the polling station or whether they are willing to help the party by putting up a poster on their house. But that’s the responsibility of the parties, not Elector. You give them a Customer Relationship Management tool, and they can add filters. Each party will have its own filters. I can tell you about one very popular feature, which allows the party to highlight their supporters and the times they usually vote if they voted in previous elections and are registered in the system. This allows them to divide their efforts and volunteers based on the time and identify weak and strong polling stations.”

So, the parties can add more and more segmentation of personal information – and it’s unclear where that information comes from?

“The campaign manager can take it in any direction he wants, but each client has to sign a written agreement not to upload illegal information to the database, including information that was obtained by illegal means.” In the same breath, however, he admits that the company has no way of identity misuse of its app in real time. “Elector is not responsible for the information that they add and cannot know what that information is since everything is encrypted. It’s exactly the same with Google, which cannot see what you’ve written in Google Docs.”

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.