The Government Has Turned Most Israelis Into Potential Surveillance Subjects, Says Researcher

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute is one of many privacy experts and law professionals to criticize the Israeli government’s decision to use surveillance technologies on Covid-19 patients

Omer Kabir 11:5219.03.20
Most Israeli citizens can be put under surveillance according to the new regulations approved by the Israeli government, according to Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.


Shwartz Altshuler is just one in a line of researchers, privacy experts, and law professionals to criticize the government’s decision to allow police and the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) to provide the country’s Ministry of Health with information on coronavirus (Covid-19) patients collected through technological means. The unanimous decision was reached on the night between Monday and Tuesday, utilizing the country’s state of emergency to bypass the Israeli parliament (the Knesset). On Tuesday evening, Shin Bet confirmed to Calcalist it has begun passing along data to the ministry.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler. Photo: PR Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler. Photo: PR


“On the one hand, the Israeli police received extensive authority, without court oversight, to monitor the location of anyone that is sick or is in quarantine using their cellular phones,” Shwartz Altshuler said in an interview with Calcalist. On the other hand, she said, Shin Bet also got extensive authority to monitor location services and possibly also the history of who we called or texted.


Shwartz Altshuler believes giving Shin Bet such power is extremely problematic. “Shin Bet is a secret service under the direct authority of the prime minister and freedom of information laws as well as transparency guidelines do not apply to it,” she said. The law gives Shin Bet very extensive and radical liberties to maintain national security and protect against terrorism and now they are being used for a different purpose, which could serve as a precedent in the future, she added.


Shwartz Altshuler also criticized the way the regulations were passed, against the Knesset’s subcommittee's judgment, claiming the government was using the political limbo to its advantage. Using technologies that infringe on privacy is legitimate in emergencies, Shwartz Altshuler said, but, here the choice of measures has been completely irresponsible. “Even at wartime there are some things you cannot do,” she said. “We pride ourselves in the checks and balances of our system and it is a shame to see them being cast aside.”


Haim Ravia. Photo: Niv Ravia Haim Ravia. Photo: Niv Ravia


Avner Pinchuk, an attorney for non-profit organization the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, agreed with Shwartz Altshuler. This is an outrageous use of Shin Bet’s top of the line surveillance system for a purpose it was not intended for, Pinchuk told Calcalist. This could easily lead to a slippery slope, as this system is not subject to judicial oversight, he said. “Perhaps this is a good chance to finally address how the state surveils its own citizens, even when it comes to national security,” he added.


According to Haim Ravia, senior partner and chair of the internet, cyber, and copyright group at Israeli law firm Pearl Cohen Zedek Latzer Baratz, the government lacked the authority to take such steps. An interim government that failed to gain the people’s trust for over a year, decided to take one of the most drastic steps ever taken against Israeli civilians, Ravia said in an interview with Calcalist.


The government did so, bypassing the Knesset, without even involving the Privacy Protection Authority which the government itself established, he added. It used the fear of the coronavirus to take these steps without proper public procedure, not even a hasty one, and without a thorough examination of less damaging alternatives, Ravia said.

Karine Nahon. Photo: Amit Sha'al Karine Nahon. Photo: Amit Sha'al


It appears that the technological means Shin Bet is using extend much further than just geolocation, Karine Nahon, a professor of information science and president of the Israel Internet Association, told Calcalist. These regulations mean any movement by anyone in Israel can be collected and monitored by the police and Shin Bet, she said.


"We are in a state of emergency but, even so, we cannot allow for systematic surveillance without the consent of civilians and without the involvement of experts and of the Privacy Protection Authority, or the oversight of the Knesset,” Nahon said. The Covid-19 crisis is civilian, not military, and using such tools with very little oversight and unclear guidelines is not a recipe for the trust and solidarity that are so crucial to overcoming this crisis, she added.


These regulations were set undemocratically and once the door to using these technologies on civilians has been opened it will not be shut, according to Jonathan Klinger, a legal advisor for non-profit organization the Digital Rights Movement.


Jonathan Klinger. Photo: Gilad Iluz Jonathan Klinger. Photo: Gilad Iluz

The state could have opted for less aggressive courses of action that would not have required special emergency legislation, such as requesting a court order for divulging the locations of coronavirus patients, Klinger told Calcalist. Knowing the locations where a patient was present, the state could then ask telecommunications companies to directly contact anyone whoever was there at that time, letting them know they had to go into quarantine, he said. “This way, you could achieve the same efficiency in warning the public, without infringing on privacy and without breaking the delicate balance between the different branches of government,” he added.


Amir Kurz contributed reporting.