Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an expert in cybersecurity. I am a tech-savvy young adult who would like to start a conversation about safety and fraud on the web, especially during these harrowing times. These are general tips to protect vulnerable populations and raise awareness of an important, relevant topic.
During wartime, we see hundreds of thousands of texts asking those of us lucky enough to be in Israel: “How can I help?” Communities around the world are mobilizing to support our soldiers on the frontlines and families displaced from their homes in the north and south of Israel – truly, it is a sight to behold. The unity of Am Yisrael, of the Jewish people, cannot be understated during this time.
However, we have seen a parallel rise in scammy links, fake websites, and social media group invaders that spread misinformation and grisly photos in an attempt to use psychological and deceitful warfare tactics to dissuade aid from arriving to the right place. For example, Ynet reporter Yuval Mann wrote about Hamas cyberterrorists using a private WhatsApp account to spread rumors of a potential kidnapping in a Rishon L’Tzion neighborhood chat. While it was revealed to be a deepfake, the unchallenged fact remains: we are facing a cyberterror pandemic of epic proportions.
For those desperate to help the war effort, there are even more dangers. There are donation links circulating that are unverified at best and, at worst, are an open invitation for cyberhackers to infiltrate the technology of private citizens. The public has repeatedly received warnings not to share troop locations or movements, base locations, or even names and numbers of IDF soldiers and volunteers. In a world where cyberwarfare is prominently utilized, we must up our efforts to keep ourselves, our families, and our people safe.
Today’s number one priority must be protecting ourselves and our families. This may take the form of privatizing your social media accounts so only your friends can view or message, changing your passwords, and monitoring comments on posts (both yours and others). If you see suspicious activity, such as a message being sent from your account that you didn’t send, or a friend posting something out of character, steps such as reporting the post or account are vital to ensuring your personal protection and the security of others and their privacy.
If you are the administrator of a social media group or page on Facebook, Instagram, or communication app such as WhatsApp, it may be worthwhile to investigate the possibility of changing the settings or invite link of the group to be by ‘invitation only’ and, in the case of WhatsApp, to regularly reset the group invite link to prevent unwelcome visitors.
In terms of donations, there are hundreds of verified, well-known organizations that one can give to in order to help, such as the Michael Levin Base, FIDF, MDA, United Hatzalah, and others. Part of the attraction of contributing to these organizations is that they have volunteers on the ground and the internal infrastructure to know where and how your contributions will be used.
What are steps I can take to verify an organization online? As a rule, it is a good idea to check the website of the organization in question. Checking the domain date of the website (when it was last renewed), if it qualifies as a 501 (c) (verified non-profit organization in the United States), or looking for an active social media presence can tell you much about the validity of the organization.
When it comes to unknown links sent in a group, Google Forms, unrecognized phone numbers, or even links directly to someone’s private PayPal or Venmo: unless you personally know the organizer or know someone else who does, it’s probably best to find another way to contribute. Besides being a potential open door for cyberhackers to invade your privacy, nonprofits with less structure may not be well-enough equipped to properly allocate donated resources. There have been thousands of individuals collecting funds and equipment all over the world, and while this is a commendable ideal, the hard truth is that it is impossible to verify each person. Therefore, unless you recognize the collector personally, it is better to donate to community collections that have a plan to donate, or larger organizations that have already vetted their volunteers and people on the ground.
Operation Iron Swords has shown us the power of our people when we are united to support a common goal. Thanks to advances in technology, citizens are able to do more than ever before – but for the same reasons, there are more dangers lurking on the internet than ever. We must take appropriate precautions to safely contribute to the safety and security of our soldiers and the millions of helping hands volunteering around the world. Am Yisrael is only as strong as our willpower to aid one another, and this must be consistent on every front, including the cyber battlefield.
Mann, Yuval. “Hamas uses deepfake technology on WhatsApp to incite terror and fear” Ynet News, 16.10.23. https://www.ynetnews.com/business/article/h1mwh2qz6