Interview with Ron Shamir

Ron Shamir

In a few words, can you tell us about yourself and how you found your way to the academic world?

In 2013 I retired from the Israel Security Agency (“Shabak”) after over twenty years’ service. I joined the ISA after completing my bachelor’s degree studies at the Tel Aviv University. I filled various technological functions, and my last position was head of the ISA’s Technology Division. I was also a member of the ISA headquarters between 2009 and 2013, a position that included responsibility for all the technological solutions used by the organization, including in the cyber field. My time in the ISA was very interesting and rewarding, particularly my final position, which was unique and challenging. After retiring, I studied in the EMBA program at the Tel Aviv University for a master’s degree in business management. At the same time I decided to work as an entrepreneur, particularly in the field of medical technologies. Today I am the co-founder and CEO of Fonetica, a company that specializes in the diagnosis of diseases by means of voice analysis. I am also a partner in three start-up companies. I occasionally advise companies and organizations in the cyber sector, which I have been intensely involved with. I came to the Federmann Cyber Security Center after Prof. Yuval Shani suggested that I conduct a joint study with my colleague Eli Bechar on the subject of cyber threats during the election campaign. The study and the various activities at the Center have been a very interesting experience for me.

What is the main core of your research? Can you give an example or two?

The study I conducted examines interference by foreign countries in the Israeli election campaign, as well as recommended tools for combating such interference. In the study we review familiar cases of interference from around the world, and in particular the case of the US presidential elections in 2016. We detail the different potential forms of interference, including technological tools that are used, and draw conclusions concerning the players and the election process in Israeli democracy. We found that there is room for improvement, for example in terms of defining the responsibility and powers of the different bodies that are supposed to address this threat. Another area where improvement is needed is transparency on social media platforms regarding the illegitimate use of these platforms.

Why choose this area over all others? Did your personal or professional background lead you to it?

My technological background and the organization where I spent most of my working life provide me with a good starting point for examining this subject. Moreover, this is an extremely important issue for anyone who is concerned for the future of the democratic system of government in Israel. Non-democratic countries see the weakening of the democratic regimes as a goal, and accordingly we must be aware of this and thwart actions in this field. Another consideration was that this is a field where solutions can be found to the threats: it was important to me that the study should have a practical and applicable dimension.

Do you think that in this cyber age these issues are even more complex compared to other times in history?  If so – in what ways?

Every period has its own unique character, and in today’s world the internet creates numerous opportunities, but also threats. An example of the latter is the ability to launch remote attacks without taking responsibility and without leaving a footprint. This leads organizations, states, and even individuals to commit actions that they would have avoided in the past. For example, Russia shut down part of the electric grid in Ukraine, while according to foreign reports Israel has attacked Iran’s nuclear program. Our study identified some complex issues, such as the tension between freedom of expression and a campaign by a foreign country to influence elections through the social media. On the one hand, we want to “censor” the internet or allow the “Big Brother” to monitor the content we upload. On the other, how can we be sure that certain opinions published on Facebook are indeed part of a foreign campaign to influence the election results?

After explaining the main core of your research, what do you think is the solution? What is the proper model for that? Is it applicable?

The final section of our study presented 15 recommendations for action, all of which we believe are viable, although some of them require further elaboration and development together with the relevant bodies. This is particularly true concerning the recommendations for legislation or legislative amendments, which require further significant work with the relevant legal functions. We believe that the Central Elections Committee can lead a process to implement the recommendations in a manner that will strike a balance between persona rights and democratic values and the need for democracy to defend itself. The fact that this subject has formed the focus of public attention over recent weeks is inspiring the relevant bodies to take action (and I say this from a position of knowledge). The discussion also has a “chilling effect” on countries that may be considering interfering in our election campaign.

What is the next phase in your professional life?

I intend to continue to be involved in the initiation of new technologies in medicine, I field that I find particularly interesting. I also hope to continue my academic activities on the cyber issue, including both research and teaching.

What is your message to the public?

In today’s world, knowledge on every aspect of life is more readily available than ever before. It is worth taking advantage of this in order to learn new things all the time. This preserves our cerebral capabilities, develops our curiosity, and opens up new fields of interest. Most knowledge is available for free over the internet, the most important technology of the current era.