COVID Has Made Big Brother That Much Bigger

Haaretz Editorial
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Jerusalem, in August.
Haaretz Editorial

Over the past year-and-half, due to the spread of the coronavirus, there have been several breaches of barriers meant to protect the privacy of Israeli citizens. But the erosion of privacy didn’t start with the coronavirus. There has been an ongoing, persistent legislative effort to help the state cope with the challenges of the internet and smartphones, while at the same time exploiting their capabilities. Only last month the Public Security Ministry proposed a bill that would allow police to use cameras to identify faces in public, and establish a database to store this information.

Every time a bill like this is proposed, it is vehemently criticized, with warnings about the risks inherent in undermining privacy, but the state – through the ministers, MKs, legal advisers and other officials – keep promising, “It’ll be fine.” But the more that details emerge about the use of these intrusive technologies, the more it becomes clear that there is no basis for believing “it’ll be fine.”

In 2007, the Knesset passed the Communications Data Law. The law, dubbed the “Big Brother Law,” allows police and other investigators to obtain data from communications companies, with the approval of a judge, or in urgent cases even without it. In 2012, the law received the imprimatur of the High Court of Justice, which ruled that while it does infringe on privacy, it does so proportionately, and moreover the requests are generally made to deal with serious offenses.

Information recently revealed by the nonprofit association Privacy Israel, which had submitted a freedom of information request to the police, shows that High Court justices erred in blindly trusting the state’s institutions. Knesset oversight of the law’s implementation expired in 2011 and was never renewed, despite the recommendation of former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch to renew it. Requests for search orders have multiplied since the law came into force, and last year reached 40,677. There has also been an increase in the length of the periods for which the orders are requested.

The judges meant to screen these requests approved nearly all of them between 2016 and 2020. The list of offenses that justified these severe invasions of privacy is long and disturbing: From disrespecting the flag, through the transport and housing of foreign workers without work visas, and ending with traffic offenses that included driving with an expired license, not maintaining proper distance between vehicles and reckless driving.

These revelations prove that law enforcement authorities cannot be trusted to make proportionate, rational use of the powerful tools at their disposal; that the oversight entities – whether the Knesset, the responsible minister or judges – are not standing guard and are in fact cooperating with this aggression; and that the High Court of Justice facilitates these dangerous practices.

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

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