Don't Turn Israel Into a Surveillance State

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Facial recognition surveillance Camera installed on roof of Palestinian's house by IDF in Hebron.
Facial recognition surveillance Camera installed on roof of Palestinian's house by IDF in Hebron.Credit: Hadas Parush

The terror attacks of the past weeks have given rise to a bill that would authorize extensive camera surveillance of citizens. This week, the government’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the use of facial recognition cameras in public spaces as well as cameras for identifying and tracking vehicles.

The bill will now be advanced in the Knesset. It states that it will be permissible “to focus on objects or on various biometric characteristics, take a photograph and compare it to images in a database so that the object or person photographed may be identified if a previous, identified image is found in the database.”

The main problem with the bill is that it would allow the police to obtain this information without oversight, without a court order and on a variety of pretexts. Police officers will be asked to use their judgment to determine whether these technological tools will enable the prevention, foiling or discovery of a crime or offense that could endanger individual or public welfare, or national security; whether they could prevent serious harm to security, human life or property; whether they could help locate a missing person, enforce a ban on entry to a public place, or enforce restraining orders.

Practically every suspected offense, trivial or grave, will receive full approval for surveillance. The law will thus not only violate the privacy of individuals but also of the people surrounding them.

With this bill, the government also sought to put a new gloss on another potentially dangerous tool: the “Eagle Eye” system for monitoring vehicle movement. Although this system has been criticized by the Supreme Court, it is already in use by the police.

Numerous civil organizations have criticized the bill. Even the Justice Ministry’s Privacy Protection Authority protested it and called for “significant oversight and inspection mechanisms” to ensure that facial recognition technology is used in a reasonable and proportionate manner. But Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar was not persuaded. “When we’re talking about a database of terrorists, the violation of privacy is a lower priority,” he said.

The only MK to oppose the bill at the committee meeting was Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. She pointed out that the technology is less accurate at identifying people with dark complexions and is ripe for excessive use by the police. Other concerns are that hackers could break into the system, the information could be copied by unauthorized parties, or that the database could be used by other arms of the government.

China’s communist government takes pride in protecting its citizens through close surveillance. Israel is not China; in this country, individual rights are anchored in Basic Laws. It is important to restore Israelis’ sense of security, but not through a disproportionate violation of their right to privacy, as this bill would do.

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

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