'Big Brother Law' Allows Biggest Database in West

The Knesset yesterday approved a law allowing the police to establish a huge database or search engine based on citizens' telephone numbers, including unlisted ones, as well as other communication data. It would be the broadest such database created by any Western police force.

The Knesset voted 35 to 5 to approve the bill on its second and third readings.

The new law will allow the police to request a judge's order to obtain such communications data on citizens, enabling the police to track a person's movements and all telephone calls.

The database will include: telephone numbers, including unlisted ones; names of mobile phone subscribers; serial numbers of mobile phones; and maps of antenna locations. The Knesset rejected a request to let the police receive lists of all Internet addresses in Israel.

A Ministry of Justice study found that there is no such database anywhere else in the Western world, and only Australia has a communications database for investigative purposes: but this database includes only phone numbers and subscribers' names.

In the case of serious crimes, the police can also receive, after court approval, a large amount of communication-related data. These would include a list of calls and messages, time and dates of all calls and messages; length of calls and size of messages; a list of the antennas and their locations used by cellular phones; and details of the payment methods used by customers.

All this data would allow the police to track a person and their calls.

In urgent cases a senior police officer could order receipt of this information without a court order, in cases where lives were at stake or in order to prevent a serious felony.

Harsh criticism was directed against the bill yesterday, since too many crimes would be included in the definition of serious crimes.

MK Gidon Saar, the Likud whip, said: "This includes almost all light felonies, including slander and insulting a civil servant." Saar proposed that the Knesset approve a limited list of applicable felonies, but his proposal was rejected by the Knesset.

The bodies who will be granted access to the data are the Israel Police, two units of the Military Police, the Israel Securities Authority, the Police Investigations Department of the Justice Ministry, the Antitrust Authority and the Tax Authority.

Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter pushed the bill aggressively. He lobbied MKs and personally pushed the bill through committee.

MKs from both the coalition and the opposition filed dozens of objections against the law, but almost all were rejected.

The only objection that was accepted, with coalition approval, was the right to privacy for privileged professional conversations, such as for lawyers, psychologists or journalists. This was proposed by MKs Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) and Gilad Erdan (Likud). The court can only approve collecting such information on these professionals in cases where the professional himself is suspected in committing a crime.

Yachimovich said: "Without privilege, journalists will not receive a single call from whistleblowers." However, at the same time Yachimovich surprised observers when she announced she would support the law in order to strengthen the police who: "have lost their power, their budgets are being eroded, and they are being trampled and delegitimized."

The chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima) said "the law is intended to provide the police with tools from the 21st century, at the same time as criminals are already using the tools of the 22nd century."

Other MKs harshly criticized the law. Yossi Beilin (Meretz) said: "We are creating Orwell's 1984 at the end of 2007."