The Facebook Squad: How Israel Police Tracks Activists on Social Media

It follows their Facebook pages, uses fake profiles to 'befriend' them and presents screenshots of posts in court – this is how Israel Police is adding social activists to its virtual surveillance list. 'They know what I write and do,' Ethiopian protest leader says.

A policeman confronts a protester at an Ethiopian-Israeli demonstration in Tel Aviv, June 3, 2015.
Avishag Shaar Yashuv

Last summer, Tahunya Salamsa joined some friends who were going to a Tel Aviv demonstration organized by young Israelis of Ethiopian origin. Shortly afterwards, she started receiving friend requests on Facebook from people she didn’t know and who appeared to have suspicious profiles.

“When you try to see who is behind the request you discover that it’s an account that was just opened that day, with a profile lacking family photos or any photo related to the person making the request," Salamsa said. "Clearly, this is fabricated. One can instantly see that this isn’t an active Facebook page.”

During other events she took part in “it suddenly dawned on me that the police had marked me," she said. "I didn’t know I was considered one of the leaders of the protest movement – I didn’t think of myself as such.” She noticed being followed everywhere she turned. “You sense that there are always some detectives nearby, even if I stand to the side and not in the middle of the crowd. I constantly saw them around me.”

Salamsa isn’t the only one who acquired new “friends” after last summer’s protest. Last October, following the lynching of Eritrean asylum seeker Habtom Zerhom, Inbar Bougla posted a protest on Facebook. “Black people have become terrorists – there was no mistaken identification” it said. Bougla was one of the leaders of the Ethiopian protests, during the course of which she was arrested.

Within minutes of posting on Facebook, she received a message from the police. “Remove the post at once, I’ll see to it that the post is removed,” it said. She says that the post was removed four times since then, with her posting it again each time. She’s not surprised. She says that when she was arrested during the protest she was told that she was under surveillance. “They know what I write and do,” she adds.

It’s no secret that Israel’s police force is using social media in order to maintain ties with the public and receive information and assistance in combating crime, including crimes of incitement. However, these platforms have also become tools for acquiring information in recent years – sometimes, it is claimed, by using fabricated names and befriending a target of investigation.

“The decision to use these methods is made according to topics the police want to address, such as pedophilia, drugs, fraud or anything else the police believe they should be focusing on” says Chief Superintendent Meir Hayon, the head of the national police cybercrimes unit at the anti-fraud Lahav 443 unit.

“In the course of this work the police goes into sites and networks," he told an international cyber conference in Tel Aviv recently. "When we search for pedophiles we look for them on sites and in networks frequented by other pedophiles. The same applies to other topics.”

Hayon didn’t elaborate on the “other topics,” but testimony obtained by Haaretz shows that in addition to people suspected of incitement or pedophilia, the police are interested in whistleblowers exposing corruption, activists in groups labeled as “problematic” and people who have demonstrated against the natural gas deal or the high cost of living.

The cyber conference was also attended by Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh, accompanied by Lahav 443 chief Maj. Gen. Roni Ritman and other officers. Alsheikh reiterated his “situational avoidance” approach, which he’s trying to introduce to the police. The approach involves operating within a population to create awareness, thus preventing transgressions before they take place. Ritman, standing next to the commissioner, explained that for cybercrimes there is an unresolved legal problem, since in order to prevent a crime it is necessary to enter a person’s computer before any crime has been committed. Alsheikh listened and promised to take action.

In practise, however, the police have been resorting to these methods for years. The social protest in 2011 was a seminal event in creating a linkage between police and social activists, young people with no criminal records who led a public campaign that was almost entirely legal.

Police intelligence personnel, with the approval of senior officials, started following the Facebook pages of protest leaders, using them as evidence in court. Thus, after the arrest last June of Daphni Leef and other activists following a demonstration on Rothschild Boulevard, a photo of their Facebook page called “Social justice – operations room” was presented in court. “Daphni, Liat Biron and Moshe Cohen are under arrest” said the post. “We’re blocking the street. The police are preparing for a confrontation. Come. Spread the word. Civil resistance now.”

David Bachar

The photo of the post was taken only 56 seconds after it was posted, leaving little doubt about police involvement.

Another person who began drawing attention during the social protest was attorney Barak Cohen, one of the more vociferous demonstrators. After the summer protest subsided, he launched a campaign against banks, opening a Facebook page called “Coming to the bankers” which was used to recruit people to demonstrate outside the homes of senior bankers in Israel.

Facebook removed the page after about a year, but Cohen maintains that he is still under the virtual eyes of the police. “When I post anything, they know it immediately” he told Haaretz. “I know this for sure since they call when they realize the post is problematic. If I post a video I’m summoned to the police right away. It doesn’t interest me or deter me but I’m aware that they closely watch every word I say.”

In one instance, Cohen posted a poem relating to a Jerusalem police intelligence officer named Alon Hamdani. Cohen was arrested, questioned and ultimately charged. Last week, Hamdani testified in the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court.

“You stated in your investigation that you retrieve information from Facebook and other social media. Is that correct?” asked Cohen’s attorney. “There are open information sources,” replied Hamdani, adding that “intelligence work means communicating with other people. You can’t use a crystal ball to get information. We deal in human intelligence as well as in gathering data on social media and other means of communication. This refers to open media. An intel officer works with permanent and fluctuating sources.”

Orly Bar-Lev, one of the leaders of the protest against the natural gas settlement, also says that she’s been earmarked. “I was marching along and noticed that behind me were three men in plainclothes, each of them carrying a video camera and taking photos,” she wrote on her Facebook page immediately after returning from the demonstration in Jerusalem.

“One couldn’t miss it – these were undercover policemen. I turned around and smiled – I always smile at policemen. Go ahead, take photos, I told one of them. His friend looked at me and said: ‘Hey, that’s the protest spokesperson!’ I looked at him, surprised that he’d identified me. ‘So, do you have photos of every one of us, with names and role descriptions?’ I asked. He smiled and didn’t reply.”

She further wrote that “the fact that undercover policemen in Jerusalem, a city in which I’d never demonstrated until that night, could identify me by looking at me, attests to comprehensive briefing before the demonstration. The fact that policemen sit in briefings before demonstrations and study faces and names shows that the police relate to us as if we were criminals or terrorists. It is called criminalization of the protest – treating demonstrators and protesters as if they were criminals. This has been going on for two years. It has only one purpose, to suppress democratic protest. This is done by intimidating demonstrators and by trying to deter people who are thinking of joining. This doesn’t happen on its own. It only comes by orders from above, from way up high.”

Attorney Avner Pinchuk from the Association of Civil Rights in Israel said he was aware that the Shin Bet security service has broad access to internet communication by activists. “We don’t know for certain what the situation is at the police, but we assume that they have access as well," he said. "Our gut feeling is based on the speed at which police responses arrive after postings are put up, when it comes to some content or to certain organizations. As soon as an activist is tagged he joins a list of persons of interest.”

A veteran member of that list is Rafi Rotem, a former investigator in the Tax Authority and a whistleblower who disclosed corruption at that institution. He said that even though he was granted an injunction to protect his rights, based on the State Comptroller’s Law, he knows he’s a police target. “I constantly write posts relating to corruption, which lead to repeated arrests,” he told Haaretz. “I currently have 114 open files against me, all related to my Facebook posts. They let me know that they’re following me on Facebook, telling me to stop posting. Over 13 years, I’ve arrived in court 12 times for a remand extension and no judge has ever granted that, not even by one day.”

The police said in response that part of their duties is to "collect information using various tools" at their disposal and under their authority, subject to the law and procedures. "We obviously can’t discuss details of our methods and means.” Rotem’s claims be disregarded, the police added.