Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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A Justice Ministry bill that would expand the state's power to track cell phone and e-mail conversations has provoked outrage from privacy advocates.

The bill would almost double the number of state agencies allowed to access such data when conducting investigations.

Currently, the only agencies authorized to obtain communications data are the police, the Military Police, the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct, the Israel Securities Authority, the Antitrust Authority and the Tax Authority.

The new bill would also give this power to the Agriculture Ministry, the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Defense Ministry's internal security department (known by its Hebrew acronym Malmab).

Under the bill, all these agencies would be able to demand various types of data from cell phone operators and Internet service providers, including lists of outgoing calls, lists of which Internet sites a surfer visited, lists of senders and recipients of e-mails and text messages (though not their content), and cell phone triangulation data that reveals a person's location.

On Thursday, Improvement of Government Services Minister Michael Eitan wrote to Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to urge him against granting such powers to these additional agencies.

"The Justice Ministry is endangering the privacy of Israel's citizens, and the question that must be asked is, what for?" Eitan wrote. "Why significantly endanger the privacy of Israel's citizens in order to transfer information to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry and other agencies? They are entrusted with important matters, but not more important than the privacy of the country's citizens."

The Justice Ministry said the new, expanded law is needed to solve problems that have emerged since the original law was enacted.

Until that law was passed, it said, any state agency that conducted investigations was entitled to access communications data; thus the so-called "Big Brother" law actually curtailed such access substantially.

"The experience accumulated since the law was enacted shows that an absolute ban on these investigative agencies' ability to obtain communications data has undermined their enforcement capabilities with no justification," the ministry wrote in its explanatory notes to the bill. "Therefore, we propose allowing additional investigative agencies to access the communications data needed to enforce the laws for which they are responsible."

The bill deems location data more sensitive from a privacy perspective than other types of data, and would therefore allow this data to be accessed by the agencies only if special circumstances justify it, and even then only if a senior police officer approves submitting the request to the court.

But even the original law was deemed excessive by some privacy advocates - The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Israel Bar Association petitioned the High Court of Justice against it in 2008. During hearings on that case, which is still pending, it emerged that the law had resulted in an increase of more than 50 percent in requests for such communications data by state agencies.

The Justice Ministry commented that the court hasn't yet ruled on this petition, and "in any case, when needs emerge at enforcement agencies, they must be examined and a solution provided."

However, it stressed, the bill is just a draft sent out for comment, and may well be amended either before being submitted to the Knesset or during the legislative process.