What Are the Police Doing on My Facebook Page?

Law enforcement authorities spying on activists' Facebook pages is a disturbing sign which evinces an urgent need for legislation drawing clearer lines around what is and what isn't acceptable.

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The social justice protest of summer 2011 was a seminal event in Israeli history. What started with a small group of people pitching tents on Rothschild Boulevard and reached a peak with half a million people out in the streets had an indisputable effect on public discourse here. The evidence of that is the major role that social and economic issues played in the recent election campaign. But even as that change took place, another, less talked-about one happened as well: The leaders of the protest were marked by the Israel Police, which put their Facebook pages under surveillance and submitted them as evidence to the court (Haaretz, February 10, 2013).

The Israel Police is not alone in these actions. In December 2012, The New York Times reported that according to FBI documents, FBI agents had been watching the members of the Occupy Wall Street movement since September 2011, exchanging information with employers, universities and police officials. The FBI regarded spying on the activists as part of the war on terror.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel believes that snooping on people’s Facebook pages is a worrisome symptom of the real problem: the way the police perceive the rights of assembly and free expression. Even if the police’s use of Facebook is only a symptom, it’s obvious that it should be dealt with immediately. Laws and regulations guiding the ways in which government authorities behave must adapt to the frequently changing definitions of privacy on social networks.

On the one hand, when our Facebook pages are open to the world, we have no one but ourselves to complain to for having allowed everybody to see it. On the other hand, we need to recognize that Facebook is becoming a platform whose use and influence go far beyond the sharing of personal experiences. The question of who is looking at our Facebook pages becomes relevant in many contexts. Are potential employers allowed to look at the Facebook pages of potential employees? Can they ask interviewees to friend them? Can police operate on social networks under assumed names and profiles to keep track of social activists and even arrest them? Should Facebook be treated as the city square, where anything made public therefore becomes part of the public domain? Or should snooping on Facebook pages be treated like wiretapping, which requires permission from the court?

A report released by Gartner Research predicts that by 2015, 60 percent of organizations will have formal programs to snoop on social-networking sites to keep information secure and prevent electronic break-ins. Today, less than 10 percent of companies keep track of their employees’ social-networking profiles. In March of last year, Facebook announced that it was considering taking employers who had asked for the names and passwords of job candidates to court.

So far, no law in Israel has been made that deals with employers spying on their employees over social networks. It appears that the issue will have to be decided by the Supreme Court following a petition on the matter, or by a bill proposed by young Knesset members – those with active Facebook accounts which enabled them win to realistic slots on their parties’ Knesset lists.

Until the closure of this loophole – one that allows surfers on social networks to be treated as potential criminals to be spied on before they commit a “crime” – the legislative authorities must incorporate the winds of change that are blowing through Israeli democracy, and not slide down the slippery slope of silencing people and invading private conversations between people and their friends on Facebook.

Zamir Dahbash is a co-owner of the Shalom Tel Aviv public relations and resource management firm. Shiri Perciger-Cohen is the firm’s head of digital PR.

Credit: Bloomberg
One reason for the demise of the social protest movement of summer 2011 was that many Israelis could not identify with its left-wing agenda.

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