Call to Order / Big Brother Wants to Get Bigger

Israel Defense Forces Captain Gad Refaeli went to lunch, giving the three workers in his office time to indulge their favorite hobby: reading the personal files of the soldiers in the unit. They know the details of each file, and the one they like best is that of Dina - Dina Barzilai, No. 496351. Among other things, they know that she waived financial assistance to her family, that she has a 93-centimeter chest, and that she had diphtheria as a child, as the song about a fictional soldier tells us. In today's world, that song - written by Haim Hefer and sung by the Nahal Band, an IDF musical troupe founded in the 1950s - would be considered a way of encouraging listeners to invade people's privacy.

That is precisely the subject with which the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee has been struggling over the past few weeks, in the context of a proposed amendment to the criminal procedure regulations. How much information should the police and other investigatory authorities have? Should it include only telephone numbers, or also e-mail addresses? And should the police know about all the cellular antennas in Israel?

It's fairly reasonable for the police to have a full online phonebook, including the publicly available numbers for users of every phone network, whether for a land line or cell phone. Such a service is also readily accessible on the Internet. But is it reasonable for the police to also have unlisted numbers without a special injunction, such as the phone number of singer Ninette Taib? Is it reasonable for police to have access to the 144 reverse directory, which provides a name and address for a given telephone number? And there's another problem: Many illegal foreign workers have cell phones. Is it really reasonable for the phone companies to hand over that information to the police?

The debate over establishing the database has lasted for two committee meetings, and it's unclear how long it will take. Superintendent Eliezer Kahane of the police legal adviser's office explained to the committee in its first meeting on the subject, on April 16, why the police force is so interested in the reverse directory.

"When I do a wiretap, I sit and investigate 200 listings, name by name, like an idiot, [to find out] who the person is, and for each thing like that I have to go to the company, bring the item by name, pay for it," he said. "It's a ton of time, a ton of money. There is no logic in my not having this database."

The police also want to update the database "from time to time." When asked how frequently that might be, a police representative said it could certainly mean as often as once a day.

Police Superintendent Anna Ben Mordechai told the committee last Monday that the bureaucracy imposed on the police has caused an unnecessary delay in responding to the thousands of emergency hotline calls a year in which the caller does not get a chance to give an address. For instance, if a woman calls the police's 100 hotline, screams, "He's murdering me!" and hangs up, the person on the other end of the line must report the situation to a chief superintendent, who then calls the contact person for the relevant phone company, and the company must look up the name and address of the phone's owner. Only then can a patrol car be dispatched to the scene.

Representatives of the cellular phone companies operating in the country were decidedly unenthusiastic about handing over their customer lists to anyone outside the company, telling the committee that the information constituted a corporate secret. Yonatan Hamo, an attorney for Cellcom, argued that the police force's sole objective was to save the cost of buying the information from the phone companies. Ya'acov Zakai, the deputy legal adviser for the Partner Communications Company, which runs the Orange cellular network, said people give phone companies their contact details so that people can ask for them by name, not find their name by asking about their phone number. There was a significant difference, he said, between handing over information about police suspects and handing police an entire database that lists information about all phone owners in the country.

For all the flap over telephone numbers, that information is the least sensitive of the data that police want to have access. Police are also trying to get access to the identification numbers etched in phones and other appliances, such as computers, modems and routers, and the SIM card numbers for cell phones.

The reason the police want all this information, Kahane said, is that some underworld figures regularly switch their SIM cards in an effort to keep from being tracked, and the police need the data to monitor them effectively. He also said the appliance identification numbers have no use for anyone other than the police, saying, "It's a number that identifies the hardware and that's it."

But although the expertise of committee chairman MK Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima) centers on a time period significantly before cell phones became prevalent - he is a historian of the nation of Israel in the Middle Ages - he said that even he knows that, despite the police contention, the identification numbers are meaningful.

Indeed, a representative of the Israel Bar Association said giving out the identification numbers "is like turning some people into walking GPS machines, since cross-checking the data gives us the identity of the user, the location where the call was initiated, the location where the call was received and who received it. It's also possible to get more information: who his friends are, who his business partners are, who he contacts on the Internet, when he makes contact. In effect, this database, if it is handed over, makes the citizens of this country transparent."

However, Kahane said police can receive the details of the calls someone is making - access to which forms the basis of the bar association's statement - only if they receive authorization from the courts.

Police are also requesting maps indicating the location of all cellular antennas and their range of coverage, which would make it much easier for police to track down the people holding a conversation they are monitoring. In addition, police are seeking all the e-mail addresses supplied by Israeli Internet service providers. If granted, such a request would be another nail in the coffin of the myth of online anonymity. Explaining the need for the information, Kahane gave an example in which someone calls the police hotline to report that a young man wrote on the Internet that he plans to commit suicide. Today, the hotline workers need to contact the Internet service providers in the hope of identifying the person at risk, which could take 10-15 minutes.

The police already have access to other databases, such as one showing all Israeli vehicle owners, which makes it easier to identify stolen vehicles. Police have also used that database in murder investigations, such as when it questioned all owners of certain car makes (with a Ford Erika platform) over the death of Noa Eyal in 1998. And the news Web site NRG recently reported that hundreds of cell phone owners were questioned over their involvement in a serious crime because their phones showed that they had been in the area at the time - but unlike with the murder case, in the latter instance the Tel Aviv police had to get a court order to get the information they wanted.

The Justice Ministry, which compiled a document comparing how Western countries deal with this issue, did not manage to find even a single country in which a public body has access to as extensive a database as that being requested by the Israel Police. Australia is the only country listed that has an official database of communication information for the purpose of police investigations, but it is controlled by the country's national telephone company, not by the police. Even more importantly, the database includes only phone numbers - not e-mail addresses, not antenna information and not appliance identification numbers.

"This data can reveal quite a lot about a person's life," said Ben-Sasson. "My shoe size is a trivial matter, but I don't want you to know it, because I get them specially imported at a specific store. That's my problem."

The Israel Bar Association said the invasion of privacy "does not stem from a single piece of information, but from the combination of information." Sigal Shahav, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, wrote to the committee that the invasion of privacy incurred in the proposal "is close to that generated in the wake of wiretapping."

Gil Shapira, the deputy public defender, warned the committee in writing that the proposal allows every police station to establish its own database and does not restrict the information to police. The proposal allows other investigatory authorities, such as the tax authority and the military police, to access the information as well. However, the committee has already decided that if it does allow the database, only one will be allowed, as multiple databases would be nearly impossible to control.

"I don't understand the reason for opposition," Kahane told committee members. "Use of this information saves lives in the face of serious crime." Kahane also promised that only elite crime-fighting units would have access to the data. Superintendent Yoav Telem, a police adviser on legal and constitutional issues, said the database would actually help police reduce the use of more invasive tactics like surveillance and wiretapping.

Doron Arbely, the senior deputy director general of investigations and intelligence for the Israel Tax Authority, said law enforcement must be given the tools to keep up with the criminals.

"The crime organizations don't have committees," Arbely said. "They are getting more sophisticated, and we have to get up-to-date. Otherwise, we're tying the hands of the enforcement authorities behind their backs."