Before he was tapped as the next police commissioner, Border Police commander Kobi Shabtai paused all training so that all border policemen could watch an investigative report on Channel 13 TV about policemen accused of looting and acting violently against Palestinians. His move was not an obvious one. Perhaps Public Security Minister Amir Ohana has chosen a person worthy of being commissioner. We’ll find out soon enough. However, we should be hearing by now more about the designated commissioner’s views regarding the police force. What does he think about the militarization it has undergone and about its conversion into a Mossad-like institution? What does he think about the police spying on the online activity of civilians?
In 2014, the police started spying on your online activities, without any fanfare. It also acquired the tools for altering the content you get on the internet. It’s been happening for years, but it’s unclear under what law the police is spying. Who approved this madness, and who monitors it? Haaretz asked all these questions. The police responded, “Israel’s police are operating under the authority granted by law, only employing tools permissible by law.” It’s a classic example of “Move along, there’s nothing to see here. They’re basically asking, “Do we work for you?” The answer, incidentally, is yes, they do work for us, even if all these years under Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule have made some of them forget this.
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The whole spying operation began when senior police officers complained that they were not equipped with sufficiently advanced technology to combat terrorism and criminal activity. A spoiler: after the police received the technology they sought, it turned out that the problem did not lie in technological capabilities.
It’s a recurring pattern. Remember the Shin Bet security service’s tracing of mobile phones? The government insisted that we must put up with the invasion of privacy in order to overcome the coronavirus, but these means were later quietly relegated to the back burner where we hide the Palestinians, after the whole thing turned out to be one big flop. It’s not our privacy which prevents the police from contending with crime, and not the Shin Bet tracing which prevented the government from vanquishing the virus. This happened due to laziness and folly, and these traits will not disappear even if you throw new technology at them; they’ll only get worse.
There’s an election campaign in the offing, and law-abiding citizens do not concern themselves with police surveillance. They are busy with promises made by Gideon Sa’ar to Yifat Shasha-Biton and with the latest slimy moves by Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser. However, we should start paying attention, since the police have been showing for month’s how deeply contemptuous its leaders are of the rule of law. Decent citizens have found themselves under police surveillance for demonstrating against Netanyahu; police vans picked up protesters and dropped them far away from the protest; police in Rehovot told youths they would be allowed to demonstrate only if they wouldn’t “foment opposition to Netanyahu.” These are the people who asked for information about your online surfing.
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There is always a concern that information gathered about online surfing can be used for other purposes. The justice ministry’s department for investigating police misconduct is currently looking into the suspicion that the deputy commander of a Haifa police station placed a police van at the entrance to his street in order to block traffic while his house was being renovated. What would prevent people like him from using information collected by the police for other purposes, such as money or sex? The arrival of a new commissioner is an opportunity to make the police less military-like, less like a secret agency. We can stand to one side, applauding, or we can demand answers to some of these questions. These people work for us, each and every one of them. It’s time they remembered that.