Israeli Military Worked to Create System to Track Social Media Users' Private Correspondence

Document shows invited bids for a system to monitor Hebrew, Arabic and English posts – but says the plan, whose surveillance targets were not specified, never came to fruition

File photo: Israeli soldiers
IDF Spokesman's Unit

The Israel Defense Forces asked cybersecurity companies in 2016 to present proposals for creating a system that would monitor social media users' personal correspondence. Ultimately, the army stresses now, no formal bidding process related to this specific initiative was conducted and implementation of the plan never moved forward.

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The document that was sent to the companies, which Haaretz has obtained and which was also posted on the Defense Ministry’s website, states that the system in question would have to scan and store both private and public information from users of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, YouTube and so on. It does not specify who would be monitored; whether Jewish citizens of Israel, or Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem – who for the most part don’t hold Israeli citizenship – would be targeted; or whether restrictions set by any outside entity would be imposed on the surveillance activities.

The army would not say whether it is actually monitoring social media users or whether a bidding process for a related scheme is being pursued.

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According to a statement issued by the IDF, the document “was a draft of an invitation to submit bids that did not come to fruition. For operational and technological reasons, the bidding process was not carried out. The army has a range of needs that stem from its operational situation, various threats and the enemy’s capabilities. For clear reasons of information security, we will not provide details regarding the characteristics of the technological systems.”

The October 2016 document said the project was proposed following a wave of so-called lone-wolf stabbing attacks against Israelis in 2015. Such attacks, by individuals not typically acting on behalf of a specific organization, highlighted the need to monitor social media and to examine how those media were influencing Palestinians.

The invitation for bids described a system that would monitor social media in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Unlike the ongoing monitoring by the IDF of nonprofit groups, social organizations and bloggers – involving collection and analyses of information that is widely accessible to the public – the system described in the document was to be used to follow personal communications. The objective was to gather information from up to 500 social media contacts, whom the individual in question either responded to, corresponded with or asked to add as a friend.

The keywords the IDF proposed tracking included "terrorism" and related links, "resistance," "nationalism" and "religion." Other words that would have been monitored included "statesmanship," "politics," "economics" and "quality of life."

The choice of these words has raised questions among cybersecurity experts, as they seem to indicate an interest on the military's part in issues that up until now have been the exclusive realms of other Israeli information security agencies.

“It is strange that they were seeking texts in Hebrew,” notes Jonathan Klinger, who specializes in cyber law and serves as legal counsel to the Israeli Digital Rights Movement.

“It’s not within the army’s authority to go after citizens rather than enemies. Keywords like ‘politics,’ ‘parties,’ ‘political figures’ and ‘candidates’ are exactly what the army cannot track. The army can’t act like that with regard to Israeli citizens, other than when it comes to violations of [military] censorship, but this involves an entirely different system,” he says.

Klinger adds that a system such as that described in the two-year-old document, if indeed used by the army, would have to be monitored by an external entity to ensure that it is not used against Israeli citizens.

However, he says, “if the army were to set up such a system to foil terrorist attacks and those whom [the IDF] tracked were not Israeli citizens but were known as terrorist operatives who could carry out an attack – the Israeli army would then have the authority to act to prevent the next terrorist attack.”