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Israeli attacks on Palestinian digital rights rise during pandemic (Demo)

This statement was originally published on on 20 August 2020.

By Dr. Nijmeh Ali

Downlaod the PDF of the full report here

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, states are increasingly using dangerous technologies at the cost of protecting fundamental human rights. In March 2020, the Israeli government approved two emergency regulations1 that served two purposes – first, enforcing new social isolation rules; and secondly, tracking the locations of patients infected with the virus. The mission was allocated to Israel’s domestic security agency, the Shin Bet (also known as the General Security Service [GSS] or the Shabak). Privacy and human rights activists have responded with outrage as this is an expansion of the Israeli government’s use of mass surveillance technologies, especially by Shin Bet, and is a further violation of digital rights and human rights.

The purpose of this report is to document the deployment of mass surveillance technologies by Israel during the coronavirus pandemic and explore the impact of these policies and practices on Palestinian digital rights – the right to privacy, freedom of expression and data protection. It also exposes the securitization framework, how the coronavirus has created an opportunity for states to frame policies and practices as necessary for security, leading to expansion and a sense of normalization with mass surveillance in the time of crises.

This report is based on media articles, academic journals and books, as well as position papers and statements from civil society organizations. It begins by looking at the construction of the online surveillance regime in Israel and then focuses on state surveillance during the coronavirus time; presenting online surveillance laws adopted by the Israeli government and its implications on digital rights. The third section specifically looks at mass surveillance technologies used to tackle the coronavirus and highlights the negative impact on the right to privacy and data protection that these technologies can have on all individuals in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories, including Israeli Jews, as well as how these technologies are used to target specific groups of the population systematically. The adoption of mass surveillance strategies also raises issues of discriminatory policies exposing the ‘technological face’ of Israeli oppression. Finally, to protect digital rights in Israel and Palestinian occupied territories, the paper offers recommendations for ensuring a free, safe and equal digital space for everyone – particularly for social, national and political groups such as Palestinian citizens in Israel and Palestinians of the occupied territories.

1. Constructing the Israeli online surveillance regime

Online surveillance or the surveillance of communication networks, is an intelligence activity designed to gather, retain, process, and analyze digital information from electronic communication networks – landline, cellular networks, the internet or data networks. Surveillance starts by intercepting and retrieving information from the web, collection of communication data, and communications service providers or companies, and processing open and hidden information which can include data- mining techniques.2

In a time in which massive human communication is conducted via electronic media, controlling modern technology for comprehensive-scale collection, storage and statistical analysis of data can yield more productive and more detailed intelligence information on surveillance targets than ever before. However, this is a double-edged sword when it comes to human rights and the violation of privacy and data protection, taking into consideration that not only those who are under surveillance are targeted, but also those with whom they are in contact. The additional element is related to the harm caused to individuals by online surveillance – this is not limited to their right to privacy. More broadly, the effect produced by such monitoring may harm their general sense of freedom and their freedom of expression.3 When individuals are aware that they are or may be under surveillance, they are likely to modify their behaviour accordingly and enhance their internal sense of censorship. For years, Israel has been using mass surveillance to monitor Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories and in Israel, yet, since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Israel has turned its sophisticated technology to track its Jewish citizens openly. However, the following section reveals that Israel has also been monitoring its citizens way before the coronavirus.

1.1 Genealogy of online surveillance laws in Israel and human rights violations

Israel presents itself as a country with varied legislation covering privacy laws, including Section 7 of the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom; the Protection of Privacy Law; the Registrar of Databases; the Credit Data Service Law; the Secret Monitoring Law (1979); the Computer Law (1995); the Genetic Information Law; and the Freedom of Information Law. Based on this, the European Commission considers Israel’s data protection laws sufficient for providing a level of protection for personal data transferred from countries in the EU.4 A critical view of Israel’s security legislation is offered by Halabi5 who provides a detailed review of surveillance technologies and practices – ID cards, CCTV, the gathering of communication data from communication companies, and biometric databases – imposed by Israel on Israeli citizens. Halabi focuses on “surveillance within Israel, and the routine violation of these protections by state intelligence and police agencies working in the interest of national security.”6

The impact of Israeli surveillance technology on human rights is undeniable. Surveillance of individuals – often journalists, activists, opposition figures and critics – has been shown to lead to arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings.7 Journalists and media have also been subjected to military censorship, orders banning coverage of specific subjects and private-sector lawsuits designed to gag them.8 In particular, two significant laws related to internal surveillance on Israeli citizens caused a heated debate in the Israeli media and reached the Court – ‘The Big Brother Law’, and ‘The Biometric Database Law’. The Big Brother Law approved by the Knesset in 2007 allows the police to set up a database of citizens that contains telephone numbers (including unlisted ones), names of mobile telephone subscribers, serial numbers of mobile phones, and maps of antenna locations. The database has been described as the “biggest database in the West.”9 In 2009, Israel passed a law that would establish a biometric database, collecting and storing biometric data – that is, distinguishing biological traits such as fingerprints, retina and iris patterns, DNA, and other unique identifiers.10 The motivation behind the biometric database, whose implementation was delayed following a two-year pilot project that started in August 2013, is the argument that it ensures security and protection against theft of personal information. Human rights organizations opposed the biometric campaign in Israel for fear that it would compromise individual privacy and give governmental bodies full access to personal data without securing sufficient oversight.11

Neve Gordon, an Israeli scholar who studied the Israeli security industry, draws our attention to the fact that Israel’s surveillance industry stems from the close links between the Israel’s military and the technology sector. In 1960, the Israeli military was developing computer software – nine years before the Israeli software industry and university computer science programs even existed. Gordon also emphasizes that the prolonged occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, along with its periodic wars, provides a laboratory for testing and fine-tuning different products that are created or different technologies.12 These links create an automatic suspicious attitude towards technological changes, mainly among Palestinians and human right activists worldwide. “Israel has become a leading exporter of tools for spying on civilians. Dictators around the world – even in countries with no formal ties to Israel – use them to eavesdrop on human rights activists, monitor emails, hack into apps and record conversations”.13

In 2014, the Israeli government approved Resolution 1775 and put forward a strategy for increasing security in East Jerusalem and Palestinian communities within the Green Line (Israel).14 Since then, the plan has been reinforced and expanded. In 2015, the Jerusalem Police district plan included the investment of 48.9 million NIS in the strengthening, purchase and installation of CCTV cameras and surveillance technology in East Jerusalem.15

These laws and surveillance methods established a comprehensive monitoring system, violating Palestinians’ right to privacy, and further limiting their right to freedom of expression and their ability to demand their human rights be respected. Meanwhile, during the coronavirus pandemic, Israel’s security agency; the Shin Bet, is using citizens’ cell phone location data to track and monitor the movements of those infected. Controversially, the data had been collected over the past few years without this being previously reported.

With the outbreak of the discussion on using mass surveillance programs in Israel, Bergman and Shabertoch revived a vital piece published in Ynet on 27 March 2020,16 disclosing information regarding a secret database known as the ‘tool’ or ‘Ha kle’ in Hebrew. This revealed that the Shin Bet has been spying on all citizens using Israeli telecommunications since 2002, all the time, and most importantly regardless of the health crisis. All that the Israeli government had to do was allow the use of this database to know where patients were, whom they talked to, where they traveled and more.

The Bergman investigation reveals that only five members of the Intelligence Subcommittee knew about the ‘tool,’ and it was never brought to the attention of the public in Israel. The result is that an extensive system, which collects information about all citizens of a ‘democratic state,’ remains entirely in the dark, with no transparency and away from the public eyes. According to Bergman, apart from gathering information on everyone, the ‘tool’ allows authorities to check citizens’ lives not only from the time they became a subject of examination but also prior to this. The Shin Bet data collection makes it clear that Israeli state surveillance is not limited to Palestinian citizens; it touches the lives of the Jewish citizens as well, although it takes different forms and is not so bound up with nationalistic considerations.17

2. Justification of mass surveillance in Israel during the coronavirus

Global crises such as the current coronavirus pandemic, evoke great fear among people, which is often an opportunity for states to justify policies and practices that violate or abuse citizens’ fundamental rights under the guise of protection. Politicians, policymakers and even ordinary citizens in Israel may believe that surveillance technologies are legitimate if they limit the spread of the virus and save lives.

Read the full statement on 7amleh’s site

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