Police Asked for Thousands of Warrants for Cell Phone, Web Data

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel contends that the law that allows police to obtain warrants seriously violates the right to privacy.

Between mid-2009 and mid-2010, the police made 14,133 requests for warrants seeking communications data about people suspected of crimes, according to data presented to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee yesterday.

The committee examined data on the implementing of a law that allows law enforcement officials to request warrants for access to records on people's cell-phone and Internet use.

The data not only sheds light on police investigations, but also on the use of the law by other law enforcement agencies, including the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel contends that the law seriously violates the right to privacy and could lead to a situation in which personal information about many Israelis finds its way to police computers and other investigative agencies' databases.

The law allowing access to these communications records was passed in 2007 and went into effect the following year. It has been nicknamed the Big Brother Law because it allows law enforcement agencies to maintain a database of telephone numbers, cell-phone numbers and other communications data, and to monitor whom people call and correspond with by e-mail.

In addition to the Israel Police and Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct, the law allows the Military Police, Israel Securities Authority, Antitrust Authority and Tax Authority to seek access to this information.

The 14,133 requests included 1,581 requests on suspicions of drug trafficking, 1,390 for breaking and entering, 1,024 for harassment, 971 for threats, 912 for suspicion of murder and 801 for robbery. During the same period a year earlier, the police sought 9,603 warrants.

Because of the warrants, communications firms provided the police with 30,855 pieces of data regarding subscribers such as telephone numbers, including unlisted ones, bill-payment details and subscriber addresses.

In addition, 26,968 pieces of data on communications traffic, including information about outgoing and incoming calls, e-mails, websites accessed and the amount of time spent on each website were provided, along with 10,835 sets of data on cell-phone subscribers' locations. The police paid cellular companies and Internet service providers about NIS 16 million for the data supplied.

Meanwhile, from June 2010 through May 2011, the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct requested courts to issue 371 warrants for records from cell-phone and Internet service providers in connection with suspected criminal activity by members of the police itself.

From June 2010 to May 2011, the Justice Ministry requested 122 warrants due to suspicions of bribe taking by policemen, 24 due to allegations of police obstruction of justice, 17 due to theft allegations, 16 for trafficking in weapons and 13 for accusations of drug trafficking. There were also seven rape cases; 11 involving allegations of bribe paying and four for robbery.

Of the requests, 193 related to alleged felonies by policemen. The others were for misdemeanors. Nine police officers were under surveillance for suspected misconduct for over a year and 46 for over six months. This included following the suspects and monitoring their telephone conversations and Internet use.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Israel Bar Association have each filed petitions to the High Court of Justice over the law's constitutionality, and although the court has held hearings on the petitions, no verdicts have been issued.