Israel's High Court Blocks Country's Hastily-Erected Domestic Coronavirus Surveillance Program

from the all-shin-bets-are-off dept

When the coronavirus crisis hit, several countries saw an opportunity to engage in/expand domestic surveillance. Unsurprisingly, China and Hong Kong were some of the first to step up their snooping. But it was Israel that quickly deployed one of the more concerning virus-tracking programs: opening up a massive collection of cellphone data to its national security force, Shin Bet.

This was done without any legislative discussion or input from the millions of stakeholders whose cell data had just become a plaything for Shin Bet. To make matters worse, the backup plan involved Israel's premier malware merchant, NSO Group, which has offered its spy tools to governments to spy on journalists, attorneys, and activists.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's unilateral declaration that telcos' data stores were open for government business may have been premature. While there's definitely value in tracking infected members of the population, a more voluntary program would have been the place to start.

The nation's High Court has at least temporarily blocked Shin Bet's use of cell location data.

[T]he ruling states that, “The choice to make use of the state’s preventative security agency to follow those who do not seek to do [the state] harm, without the subjects of the surveillance giving their permission, raises an extremely serious difficulty and a suitable alternative should be sought that fulfills the principles of privacy protection.”

The court says that if the government wants to do this, it needs to create legislation first -- something that will establish guidelines for use of the data collection, as well as provide an expiration date for this specific authority.

This isn't necessarily what the government wanted to hear. Haaretz reports a classified meeting between the country's Foreign Affairs office and the Defense subcommittee discussed concerns about the Shin Bet effort. But officials weren't concerned about the privacy issues the court raised in its decision. Instead, they were discussing a National Security Council report that said that if the government didn't do this, the other alternatives were pretty much useless.

Among other things, the report stated that the primary alternative would be monitoring by NSO group, an Israeli Surveillance company, to which Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit objected because it would undermine residents’ privacy. It was also argued that there is a huge number of people who use kosher phones that cannot download apps, and that this was an impediment.

Yes, you read that correctly. The government's National Security Council argued the NSO effort would undermine privacy. Somehow the same conclusion wasn't drawn about the country's national security agency using the same data.

In more helpful news, the High Court also ruled journalists' data off-limits. If journalists wish to be tracked as part of the temporarily-halted surveillance program, they will need to consent to the collection. Obviously, most journalists will opt out, given the risk this surveillance poses to their sources. Those seeking to opt out can obtain a restraining order from the court to block Shin Bet's access to their records.

All in all, it's a good thing someone's attempting to rein in government overreach in a time when a lot of government activity is going to go unquestioned. This still leaves unanswered questions about the virus-related surveillance -- namely how long it's going to last and how easy it will be to uncouple the government from this data when it's all over. Hopefully, the mandated legislation will answer the questions the Prime Minister apparently didn't ask before authorizing this new form of domestic surveillance.

Filed Under: contact tracing, covid-19, israel, mobile phone data, privacy, shin bet, surveillance
Companies: nso group


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