Editorial |

Too Big a Brother

Haaretz.
Haaretz Editorial
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A woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya.
A woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, in this file photo from August 2016. Credit: Jack Guez/AFP
Haaretz.
Haaretz Editorial

Under the cover of the spreading coronavirus, the government is deepening its invasion of the lives of this country’s citizens. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett continues to use his temporary authority in order to promote plans that run roughshod over the right to privacy, while demolishing the distinction, so vital in a democracy, between the army and civil society.

This week, Bennett presented a plan that was devised at his instigation and carried out in a collaboration between the Authority for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure (a joint administrative body of the Defense Ministry and the IDF) and a civilian company. As exposed by TheMarker, this company is none other than the offensive cyberwarfare company NSO, a company that was possibly implicated in the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and which is involved in helping countries using its Pegasus software penetrate the cellphones of journalists and human rights activists.

It appears that Israel was envious of China, the largest dictatorship in the world, a country that limited the spread of corona through its technological network. It began with a snap decision by Benjamin Netanyahu, who authorized the Shin Bet security service – using the 1945 emergency defense regulations – to track Israeli citizens by localization of their cellphones (it later turned out that the Shin Bet was also collecting information regarding call content as well); later, the Health Ministry’s Magen app was launched, an application which also constantly records the location of citizens; NSO is now being given access to the Defense Ministry without the approval of the attorney general.

The NSO system being used, unlike its spyware products, is not collecting information, only analyzing it. The system will receive all the information collected by the Shin Bet and the Health Ministry, and every citizen will be given an “infection grade,” which is updated in real time, noting the likelihood of a person being a carrier of the virus. “My grade might have been 5.6 yesterday, and now it’s spiked to 9 after I went to the grocery store, where two virus carriers had shopped in recent days,” explained Bennett.

The extent of the invasion of privacy, and employing the army for collecting information are not compatible with a democratic society. Besides the fact that tracking civilians enables the government to blur a decades-long neglect of the health system, which may not withstand an onslaught of corona patients, Israel’s citizens have in recent weeks been unwillingly participating in an experiment in which they are tracked and subjected to an analysis of their sensitive private information. Corona is providing further legitimization for tightening this tracking.

MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) did well in turning to the attorney general with an urgent request to halt the collaboration with NSO. Fighting corona cannot justify collaborating with a questionable company which is whitewashing its operations under the cover of corona, while ignoring the privacy of citizens of this country and of others now residing here.

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