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Microsoft’s ElectionGuard a Trojan Horse for a military-industrial takeover of US elections

“The fact that we are handing over the keys of American democracy to the military-industrial complex — it’s like giving the keys to the henhouse to a fox and saying, ‘here come in and take whatever you want.’ It’s obviously dangerous.” — Investigative journalist Yasha Levine

by Whitney Webb 

Part 6 - Microsoft’s ties to Israeli military intelligence

ElectionGuard is currently being promoted as a key step towards preventing the “interference” of a foreign government or state actor in U.S. elections in the future. Yet, there is no guarantee that ElectionGuard itself is free from foreign influence, given that Microsoft has deep ties to the military intelligence community of a foreign nation: Israel.

Microsoft’s links to the Israeli military intelligence unit known as Unit 8200, which will be discussed momentarily, are troubling for more than a few reasons. The first is the fact that the main developer of a new election software system aimed at protecting U.S. elections from “foreign interference” has close ties to a foreign military intelligence agency. It goes without saying that if the main developer of ElectionGuard had such ties with another foreign military intelligence agency, such as Russian military intelligence, the software would not stand a chance of adoption in the U.S. and it would likely be a national scandal. The fact that Microsoft’s ties to Israeli military intelligence have not troubled proponents of ElectionGuard suggests that the problem is not foreign interference or influence as long as the foreign nation involved is an ally, not an adversary.

Arguably yet a graver concern in terms of the Microsoft-Unit 8200 relationship and Electionguard, is the recent slew of scandals surrounding Israeli interference in foreign elections all around the world. The most recent of those scandals involved the Israeli company the Archimedes Group and its social-media influence disinformation campaigns to target the elections in several African and Asian nations. According to the Times of Israel, the CEO of the Archimedes Group, Elinadav Heymann, is a former senior intelligence agent for the Israeli military. The group spent an estimated $800,000 on misleading Facebook ads as part of its disinformation campaign, a sum much larger than the $100,000 alleged to have been spent by a Russian company on a similar disinformation campaign in the 2016 election.

Prior to this latest scandal, several private Israeli companies were accused of seeking to collude with the Trump campaign in 2016, namely the now-shuttered PSY-Group — which was run by former Israeli intelligence operatives — and Wikistrat, which also has close ties to Israeli intelligence. The fact that private Israeli firms with ties to Israeli intelligence and Israeli military intelligence have been caught in recent election meddling scandals, including in the U.S., should be a major red flag when examining the many conflicts of interests that enshroud ElectionGuard’s developers and how those conflicts may inform the program’s functionality.

Microsoft has long had a presence in Israel, which dates back to 1989. However, in recent years, they have invested in and acquired in several companies with deep ties to the IDF’s Unit 8200.

In 2015, Microsoft acquired Israeli cloud security company Adallom for $320 million, which would go on to serve as a new foundation for Microsoft’s Research and Development (R&D) Center in Israel, which has been active since 1989. Adallom’s product was subsequently rebranded as Microsoft Cloud App Security. Adallom’s CEO and co-founder is Assaf Rappaport, who now heads Microsoft’s R&D Center in Tel Aviv. Rappaport, among other things, is a graduate of the elite IDF “Talpiot” program and also served in the Israeli military intelligence unit known as Unit 8200.

Unit 8200 is an elite unit of the Israeli Intelligence corps that is part of the IDF’s Directorate of Military Intelligence and is involved mainly in signal intelligence (i.e., surveillance), cyberwarfare and code decryption. It is often described as the Israeli equivalent of the NSA and Peter Roberts, senior research fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, characterized the unit in an interview with the Financial Times as “probably the foremost technical intelligence agency in the world and stand[ing] on a par with the NSA in everything except scale.

Notably, the NSA and Unit 8200 have collaborated on projects such as the infamous Stuxnet virus as well as the Duqu malware, a sophisticated strain of which was used to spy on countries engaged in negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran. In addition, the NSA is known to work with veterans of Unit 8200 in the private sector, such as when the NSA hired two Israeli companies, whose executives are linked to Unit 8200, to create backdoors to all the major U.S. telecommunications and major tech companies including Facebook, Microsoft and Google. The unit is also known for spying on civilians in the occupied Palestinian territories for “coercion purposes” — i.e., gathering info for blackmail — and also for spying on Palestinian-Americans via an intelligence sharing agreement with the NSA.

However, Microsoft’s connections to Unit 8200 go far beyond Adallom. Another example is Microsoft’s considerable investment in Illusive Networks, an Israeli cybersecurity firm created by Team8, in which Microsoft has also invested heavily. Team8’s CEO and co-founder is Nadav Zafrir, who used to lead Unit 8200, and two of the company’s three other co-founders are also veterans of Unit 8200. Former CEO of Google (now Alphabet), Eric Schmidt, is a major backer of Team8.

Team8 has cozied up to former NSA directors, with Zafrir giving presentations alongside former NSA director Keith Alexander, for example. Those efforts eventually culminated in Team8 hiring retired Admiral Mike Rogers, former director of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, as a “senior adviser.” “I’ve worked with the highly talented resources of Unit 8200 in the past and so when I had the opportunity to join Team8, I knew this was a rare and valued opportunity,” Rogers said of his hire. Team8 described the decision to hire Rogers as being “instrumental in helping strategizeTeam8’s expansion in the United States.

Rogers’ hire by a firm headed by the former boss of a foreign military intelligence agency drew sharp criticism from veterans of the NSA. One of those ex-NSA employees — Jake Williams, a veteran of NSA’s Tailored Access Operations hacking unit — told CyberScoop that Rogers is not being brought into this role because of his technical experience …It’s purely because of his knowledge of classified operations and his ability to influence many in the U.S. government and private-sector contractors.

In addition to Microsoft’s ties to Unit 8200 through its connections to Adallom, Illusive Networks and Team8, Microsoft is also developing direct ties with Israel’s military, with the IDF having adopted the company’s HoloLens technology. The IDF’s C2 Systems Department has been using a pair of HoloLens devices to adapt the technology for use in war for the past three years, a precursor to what is sure to be a lucrative military contract for Microsoft, considering that their HoloLens contract with the U.S. military was nearly half a billion dollars.

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