Identifying fraud and fake news in intelligence

Cyabra founders Photo: PR

Former Israeli manipulators of the social networks for business and political campaigns have crossed the lines and are now helping to detect such campaigns.

It has recently seemed as if the dark side of business intelligence is now being exposed. More and more details are being published about companies, including Israeli ones, that tried to shape public consciousness in ways for which "controversial" is a mild description. Two of these Israeli companies, Black Cube and Psy-Group, have been at the core of a number of turbulent political affairs in recent months, the most serious of which was Russian involvement on Donald Trump's side in the recent US elections. The global process (including "Globes") reported that both companies employed espionage and wiretapping and used phony identities, among other things on social networks.

According to the reports, the two companies used the identities in the framework of the business and political campaigns that they waged all over the world. Among other things, it was revealed that Psy-Group made an offer to Donald Trump's son to help his father's election campaign behind the scenes. It was also reported that Black Cube had gathered information designed to affect the nuclear agreements with Iran. Last week, POLITICO Magazine revealed that Black Cube had also intervened in elections in Hungary, including a campaign of slander against George Soros. Canadian investment company West Face Capital is currently suing business intelligence companies that conducted campaigns against it, including the two Israeli companies.

Whenever a problem is discovered, there is almost always someone offering the antidote, and in more than a few cases, it is the same people. This is also true in the case of startup Cyabra, founded by COO Yossef Daar and CTO Ido Shraga, both of whom were among the people who founded Psy-Group in 2013. They joined forces with CMO Sendi Frangi and CEO Dan Brahmy, who also have experience in using digital identities in military and business intelligence. They are now offering businesses and politicians tools for combating these dark practices, at least in their online version: a platform that detects in real time planned fraudulent and slanderous campaigns on the social networks behind which stand counterfeit profiles.

The four cofounders of Cyabra told "Globes" that after years of working in false identities, they decided to switch to the side of defending against them with all the experience that they accumulated. They are unwilling to talk about their military past or their professional experience as civilians. Nevertheless, Frangi and Daar took part in setting up the technological system used by Psy-Group and continued to operate it up until a year ago, when they left to found Cyabra.

Although they say that they have left their past behind them, the founders' experience is attracting a good deal of attention in higher education, the business world, and the security sector. Cyabra recently became the first investment of Tel Aviv University's Tau Ventures fund, joined Coca Cola's "The Bridge" program and plans to conduct a pilot with the company. Perhaps more importantly, Cyabra is one of seven companies selected for the Israel Security Agency's (ISA) new startup accelerator (in cooperation with Tel Aviv University), in which the startups will receive $50,000 to develop technologies likely to be useful to the ISA in the future. All of these agencies are assuming that Cyabra's fraud detection capabilities will be especially precise, but the people behind it know how it really works.

We don't have to prove our honesty

The immediate consequence of the great interest that Cyabra is arousing is that its four founders have almost no time to breathe. When I arrived at the offices of The Bridge on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv where Cyabra's 12 employees are located, I met Frangi. Brahmi was in a meeting in the nearby boardroom. Daar joined the interview following a different meeting attended by him and Shraga. Frangi and Daar said that they were planning to fly to a meeting with a large international customer whose name they refused to disclose. 

Today, Cyabra's system is fully operational on Facebook and is also in initial use on Twitter and LinkedIn. Other concerns hire the company's services when they sense a negative discourse against them on the social networks or in order to preempt such a discourse. Cyabra scans the existing discourse on the network against the concern and detects whether it results from use of false profiles. The variables examined include the date on which the profile was started, shared friends, previous posts, keywords, and sentiment (the feeling expressed in the posts). In order to enhance the analysis of each profile's digital fingerprints, the company uses artificial intelligence and is currently developing a natural language processing (NLP) technology in order to improve its abilities in content analysis.

"Usually, in the initial stage, the attacked party does not realize that it is a planned campaign," Frangi says. "Many attacked concerns say, 'OK, we'll keep our heads down and it will pass.' This, however, is the difference between people who attack once and an organization that conducts a planned attack using fictitious identities. If there is a false identity distributing content that attacks politicians and brands, it is there because there is a group with an agenda behind it whose purpose is to promote it. The party operating the identity receives a lot of money. He will not go to eat something for five minutes and forget about it; he will stay in the vicinity the next day, too."

When these concerns start to suspect that a planned campaign is involved and want to know how to respond to it, they come to a company like Cyabra. After the detection phase comes the insights phase: the company publishes a report presenting data, such as the number of fictitious users involved and the connections between them. Using this analysis, the company tries to estimate how much money is being invested in the attack and even more importantly, to theorize about the identity of the party behind it.

During our meeting, it was clear that the founders were interested in letting the past lie and concentrating on the present. Various questions about their previous business were answered with a shrug and "Put that aside." At one point, I was even asked to stop recording the interview. Nevertheless, they proudly said that the same mysterious past gave them the know-how they are using today. Tau Ventures managing partner Nimrod Cohen also told "Globes" after his fund's investment in Cyabra that the company had been selected because of its founding team's experience. Startups purporting to combat fake news are arising as frequently as US President Donald Trump uses the phrase, but most of them do not thoroughly understand what this battlefield looks like.

"It's not that others aren't doing what we're doing," Daar says. "What's good about us is that the others often come from institutions of higher learning, while we come from more practical spheres. In the end, we also rely on academic research, but in every layer between the area of open knowledge and know-how we have a relative advantage on the basis of what we know and recognize."

Do you mean that your past use of false identities enables you to detect them?

"I don't like putting it that way; it's over-simplistic," Daar says uncomfortably. "This also isn't the story."

So what is the story?

Daar: "There is experience that you get both with the security forces and in the civilian sector. In the civilian sector, it wasn't a long-term experience. We learned how to use what we learned from other places in the civilian sector. Recognizing the implementation of these things gives a lot more than the theory. When the hard work is finished, it's the specification of this thing - what exactly a false profile does on the way from the time it's created to the first post that it publishes. There's a lot that happens in this interval and we have a big advantage because we come from areas that are familiar with it."

As someone who comes from these areas, why should people trust you now?

"I don't think that I need to prove my honesty, but in my opinion, the fact that I'm giving up really huge salaries for about a quarter of it says a lot."

Thousands of Israelis work in business intelligence

It is not as if the entrepreneurs behind Cyabra woke up one morning and decided to repent of their evil ways. They say that they began thinking about founding the company when they were still in their previous jobs on the other side of the barricades. For a year, there were meetings in Frangi's apartment in Givat Shaul at which they ate pizza and developed the idea behind Cyabra late at night. In August 2017, almost a year ago, they decided to leave their jobs and found the company.

It is hard to attribute too much opportunism to them. The reports of Psy-Group's troubles probably came to the attention of the employees only six months later in February 2018, when one of the employees reported to his friends that the company's CEO had said that they would not receive salaries that month. As far as we know, Daar and Shraga were unaware that Psy-Group would enter liquidation proceedings and close down; they did not found Cyabra in order to abandon a sinking ship.

Beyond the opaque word "familiarity," Daar and Shraga refuse to talk about what was done at Psy-Group and what they did there, or to discuss the current revelations about it. Nevertheless, what Cyabra's founders say about their experience sheds a little light on the prevailing practices in this sphere.

They say that their experience taught them that negative campaigns and fake news are usually conducted by creating false profiles and that this tool became common in both politics and business. These profiles make it possible to distribute biased information about companies and politicians that would otherwise results in libel suits. While relatively simple campaigns are aided by bots, computer software for distributing messages that are easy to detect, more sophisticated campaigns will use avatars - real people manually operating false profiles. Such avatars can be basic and focus on distributing the campaign messages but some of them are far more sophisticated.

"There are users who appear completely real and their entire purpose is to create interaction with people," Daar says. "Such a user will write something that arouses interest in order to attract people like journalists and politicians. His goal is to communicate an idea. His image is adapted to the story that he's telling. Everything looks real and legitimate."

Another scenario that he presents is even more alarming. "There are avatars who have become opinion leaders who really influence people. They are known by name as authorities in their fields, but no one has met them. Even business intelligence people don't usually meet them; they meet someone who represents them. Say that one of them has a company and sends the deputy CEO. To completely impersonate another person is hard; people don't want double identities for themselves."

Cyabra says that fabricated campaigns are constantly taking place in our environment. "Fake news has undergone revolutions in recent years, mainly in the Russian context," Frangi says. "It's something that we started seeing from them during the occupation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014." This was followed by the campaign to promote Brexit and then, of course, the 2016 US presidential elections. "In the end, these campaigns by Russia are trying to make people lose their faith in democracy," Frangi says.

Are there campaigns now trying to affect the Israeli public?

Frangi: "I assume so. Fake news is one of the most important global problems."

One thing is certain: even if the Israeli public is not on the radar of the various consciousness shapers, the presence of Israeli actors in this sphere is significant and troubling. Psy-Group and Black Cube were both founded by senior officers in classified intelligence units in the security forces and various parties close to those companies, including Black Cube founder Dr. Avi Yanus, referred to experience accumulated by employees of these companies as one of their sources of their strength. The IDF and other securities forces have not admitted the use of false identities for purposes of espionage or information distribution, but have openly dealt with such measures by the other side. In January 2017 and also in recent weeks the IDF reported that Hamas had operated networks of phony profiles in order to spy on Israeli soldiers and citizens.

"Both in the military and afterwards in the business-civilian sector, Israel is a leader in intelligence," Frangi says. He and Daar believe that hundreds to thousands of people in Israel are making a living from work in this sector. He says, "All of the people working for us come with a background; our system won't work otherwise. In order to develop something like this, you need very extensive knowledge about online identities." The company's board of directors, incidentally, includes Ram Ben Barak, currently a member of the Yesh Atid Party and former head of the Mossad and former director general of the Ministry of Intelligence and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

Aiming at the world, not the local market

When Cyabra finishes developing language processing capabilities and expands to additional platforms besides Facebook, its founders hope to provide a comprehensive solution to the problem of fake news. They want to be the first to detect biased coverage of news events, public pressure on politicians generated by phony campaigns, and financed slander by commercial companies against each other.

Groups using phony slander campaigns in Israel probably have no reason to fear exposure of their practices. Daar says that Cyabra prefers appealing to the global market, where the phony campaigns are on a much larger scale. "We work with large international customers; the Israeli market doesn't interest me," he declares.

Raising capital from Tel Aviv University is designed to enable Cyabra to immediately hire more employees. The company's founders say that hiring more employees is likely soon. "There are people here with a dream," says Frangi, "but it's not as if Tau Ventures is just investing in some dream. We're already providing real value and the company is advancing at an exponential pace."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 16, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Cyabra founders Photo: PR
Cyabra founders Photo: PR
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