Break the Chain of Surveillance

Haaretz Editorial
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Israel Defense Forces soldiers working at the Home Front Command headquarters in Ramle, May 8, 2020.
Israel Defense Forces soldiers working at the Home Front Command headquarters in Ramle, May 8, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Haaretz Editorial

As expected with the use of invasive means to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the state’s appetite for spying on its citizens while trampling on their privacy increased. Military Intelligence officers serving in the Alon command center – the Israel Defense Forces project for cutting the chains of infection – have recently started to monitor social media sites in an effort to foil large gatherings in advance. The army identifies the planners, exposes their plans for get-togethers that violate the coronavirus restrictions, and pass the information to the police so the latter can prevent these events (as reported Sunday by Amos Harel).

To date some outdoor parties and large weddings have been scuttled, but it turns out that the intelligence soldiers lent to the command center have managed to also identify coronavirus patients meant to be in quarantine, but whose incriminating posts made it clear they were violating it.

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This is no surprise. When the prime minister and his ministers compare the pandemic to existential threats in Jewish history, like the Holocaust or, in Israel’s history, like the Yom Kippur War, it’s natural they would conclude that all means to stop the virus’ spread are kosher and that there is no agency more up to the task than the IDF. In the war against the virus, a wedding is equivalent to a suspicious object. And with the glorious experience the army’s intelligence forces have in monitoring civilian populations, why suffice with just cellphone tracking when one can take the additional methods that the security establishment uses against Palestinians and turn them against Israeli citizens, who are all at this point suspected of planning to spread the disease?

The army trained and operates 2,800 investigators. In their great sensitivity, the IDF decided to call them “surveyors,” because “investigators” apparently has a negative connotation among the public. But true civic sensitivity would be resisting the temptation to use Israel’s spy agencies and the special methods they use to fight terror for stopping the spread of the pandemic. Using these methods against civilians constitutes a gross invasion of privacy. Israel’s aggressive monitoring methods are extreme compared to those of other Western democracies.

It’s no coincidence that the person who has been pressing since the start of the crisis to broaden the use of advanced technologies is Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently even suggested using street security cameras to locate and fine people walking around without masks. Netanyahu pushed the Shin Bet security service into tracking cell phones, didn’t hesitate to restrict the right to demonstrate and is interested in intensifying the surveillance of civilians, especially when many of them are now demonstrating to demand his resignation. One mustn’t let the army spy on civilians via social media.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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