Technologies of the 21st century - the cellular and Internet - make it easier for people to communicate, but at the same time, expose them much more to the threat of invasion of privacy.
Every use of the Internet is documented in digital data banks and is easy to trace and pull out. As interpersonal communications and entertainment consumption make the transition from traditional means like mail, telephone and television to online networks, larger segments of the everyday lives of their users are documented on the systems of cellular operators and Internet providers.
Computerized documentation make it easier for law enforcement authorities to gather information about people. It enables them to follow an individual's movements, the sites he surfed on, his e-mail correspondences and the text messages he sent and received, without carrying out an expensive physical surveillance or tapping his phone conversations for prolonged periods of time. All it takes is a court order, and the communication is exposed.
The growing ease of gathering information provides law enforcement authorities, first and foremost the police, with an incentive to increase digital surveillance of individuals, with the help of the sweeping powers conferred on them by the so-called "Big Brother law" enacted two years ago.
Figures pertaining to the implementation of the law that were submitted to the Knesset Constitution Committee this week show that from July 2009 to June 2010 police requested and received 14,133 court orders to hand over information from communications providers. These figures reflect a 47 percent jump from the previous year.
The police say digital surveillance is vital to fighting criminals who are growing increasingly sophisticated. But the dramatic increase in the number of court orders raises concerns of excessive infringement of privacy and validates the fears of those who had opposed the law. It appears that the police prefer investigations that can be undertaken easily to preserving privacy and that the courts easily grant requests for information from the cellular networks and the Internet.
The attorney general, the courts and the Knesset must make sure the surveillance of suspected criminals does not lead to wholesale infringement on privacy. The disturbing rise in the number of court warrants shows that the police cannot be trusted to show restraint on their own.
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