Police Obtaining More Phone Data, Personal Information

Growth is sharpest for fast-track requests that don’t require a court order

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A woman holding a smartphone.
A woman holding a smartphone. Credit: MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP
Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv

When it comes to seeking personal information on Israelis’ cellphones, the police have become quick to click OK on requests, figures obtained by TheMarker show.

The figures show a steady rise in the number of requests for information on users’ home addresses and credit card details, the data they use and even where they were at a particular time since June 2008, when the “Big Brother law” giving the Israel Police wider powers went into effect.

In 2016, the last year for which there are figures, the number of requests for information obtained through a court order reached 24,801, an increase of 7.8% from 2015. Since 2011, the number has risen 41%.

The growth, however, has been even faster for fast-track requests that don’t require court approval: They jumped nearly 21% in 2016, to 9,517 and since 2011 have risen 174%, according to the figures obtained by TheMarker through a freedom of information request filed through the Ask Data website.

“I’m very disturbed from the big rise in the number of cases that were done on the authority of a police officer,” said Avner Pinchuk, a lawyer who is the director of the Right to Privacy Program at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “I’m not counting requests connected with saving lives — I can’t complaint about that — and focus on the cases of an officer’s decision to request information for the purposes of ‘investigating or preventing crimes,’ which is the standard police work.”

The increases are coming even as crime rates in Israel have been falling for several years. The Israel Police reported a 3.2% decline in the number of new cases opened in 2016 and said that the year was characterized “by the lowest rate of reported crime in the last decade.”

The Big Brother law, formally known as The Criminal Procedures Law (Enforcement powers — Communications Data), which was approved by the Knesset in 2007, give the police enhanced powers to gather information from telecommunication companies. It regularizes the procedures for obtaining the information not only by the police but by the Israel Tax Authority, the Israel Securities Authority and even the Antitrust Authority.

That includes personal data and often sensitive information, including what internet sites the user visited and his or her email traffic, including senders and recipients, times and dates and addresses, though not the actual contents of emails. The authorities can also request location data, which is useful in the case of missing persons.

Section 3 of the law defines the main pathway for the authorities to obtain information. It empowers a magistrate’s court to issue an order letting a police officer of a rank of commander or higher to get the data, but only in cases where a life is a stake or to prevent harm. They can also use the fast-track procedure investigate or prevent offenses; find and prosecute criminals; or in order for impound property.

The police make on average 70 such applications daily, and the courts have generally been quite lenient in approving them. For all of 2016, judges turned down just 39 applications out of close to 25,000.

Requests for phone data from certain professionals with access to sensitive information, such as lawyers, members of the clergy, journalists and psychologists, is supposed to be handled with more care, but the number rose to 86 in 2016 from 54 in 2015, the data obtained by TheMarker show.

“There’s a worrying rise in the number of applications for data in people in professions that have sensitive data, like doctors, attorneys and journalists,” said ACRI’s Pinchuk. “I suspect that the latter are the majority but I have no way of verifying that.”

Moreover, under Section 4 of the law, known as the “administrative channel,” an authorized police officer can make direct a request to a provider “for the purpose of preventing an offense, revealing its perpetrator or saving a life.” In 2016, a quarter of all requests came under Section 4.

The Big Brother law required the public security minister to report on requests for data for the first four year the legislation was in force, but after the requirement expired the reporting stopped until TheMarker obtained it.

ACRI was concerned that the number might start rising once there was no more transparency and appealed to the High Court of Justice, together with the journalists union, to block it. The appeal was rejected in May 2012, although the court told officials that Section 4 applications should be used as little as possible.

The Israel Police didn’t respond to queries about the use of phone data.

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