DONATE: While the world’s attention is rightly focused on the Coronavirus pandemic, it has lost sight of many other critical global developments. I have in fact noticed that the site traffic to this blog has declined considerably during this period.
I am concerned that the world is ignoring crucial issues, even ones that have a direct connection to the pandemic. For example, the dangerous new technologies being offered by human rights-averse societies like Israel’s to the world. Israel is the harbinger of some of the most invasive surveillance technologies currently marketed. Policymakers and general readers must be made aware of the dangers inherent not just in the illness, but in the “cures” offered.
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The world Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore new technologies that may be used to detect, monitor and quarantine victims. Countries known to emphasize social control like China have utilized these methods to restrain the spread of the virus amidst its huge population. But less well known is that democratic countries in the west too have been stampeded by fear into embracing some of these draconian, intrusive methods of mass surveillance.
In particular, I’ve reported here on Israel’s utilization of a hitherto secret database compiled by the Shabak secret police of private information on every citizen (including Jews and Palestinians). The original purpose of the records was as an aid in counter-terror investigations and as a method of predicting who might be likely to engage in such activities.
A confidential Israeli source has confirmed that The Tool was used in 2004 to expose a Mossad agent who had supposedly been turned by Iran and was offering it secret Israeli intelligence. This aspect of the case has never been reported anywhere. I’ve called him Prisoner X2, since he was tried, sentenced, and imprisoned in secret. His name still has not been reported publicly. No doubt, Bergman knows the name, but he can’t report it in Israel.
What’s curious to me is that the Israeli government gave its domestic spy agency the task of creating this database not only based on Palestinians under Occupation in the West Bank and Gaza (there might be some justification for such a project), but for all Israelis, including Jews. While there are some Jewish settlers who’ve engaged in terrorism against Palestinians, there would seem to be no reason for including every Israeli citizen.
Ronen Bergman broke this story in the NY Times a few days ago. But his Hebrew report published by Ynet is much more extensive and troubling. The database which the government directed Shabak to compile is called “The Tool” (an alternate translation might be “The Key”). It not only includes the names, addresses, phone numbers and family members of every citizen, it also physically tracks everyone: where they go, who they meet, and what routes they follow. It tracks every phone call, who the recipient is, that latter’s phone number, what they say, and where each individual is located. It also includes information about the user’s internet searches. It knows if you visited a porn site, or a site devoted to offering help to those suffering from a terminal disease.
The database makes no distinction between those suspected of a crime or of carrying the Coronavirus. It monitors everyone regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. The agency also retains the data for an indeterminate time. No one knows if they ever delete it. The level of intrusion into the granular details of everyday life is extraordinary. Equally astonishing is that almost no Israelis are raising any objections to this project. It is a price they seem willing to pay in order to ensure their security amidst what is viewed as an existential terror threat from their Arab neighbors.
Danger of Militarizing a Health Crisis
The militarization of Israeli society continues. Shabak monitors people in contact with Corona. Mossad buys medical equipment and now armed soldiers alongside police and border police in the streets to enforce curfew.
— Yossi Melman (@yossi_melman) March 27, 2020
Another alarming element of the Israeli response is that it has become militarized. The army has been summoned to police Israel’s streets along with the regular law enforcement presence. This is typical of the Israeli response to every social issue. As opposed to western democratic states, the Israeli national security state devalues civilian authority and resorts to draconian solutions at the first opportunity. Now, authorities have begun issuing fines of up to $1,500 for each quarantine violation.
Mass Surveillance in Time of Pandemic: a Price Too Dear
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) published an important cautionary tale about the harmful impacts of the type of massive surveillance Israel:
Governments around the world are demanding new dragnet location surveillance powers to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. But before the public allows their governments to implement such systems, governments must explain to the public how these systems would be effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. There’s no questioning the need for far-reaching public health measures to meet this urgent challenge, but those measures must be scientifically rigorous, and based on the expertise of public health professionals.
Governments have not yet met that standard, nor even shown that extraordinary location surveillance powers would make a significant contribution to containing COVID-19. Unless they can, there’s no justification for their intrusions on privacy and free speech, or the disparate impact these intrusions would have on vulnerable groups.
The article notes that the type of intrusive geo-tracking of citizens offers a dragnet approach that stifles free speech, freedom of association and movement. It also tends to target the weakest and most vulnerable members of society disproportionately. In fact, the Shabak proves this point while it reveals the profound racism at the heart of both The Tool and all Israeli society:
Bergman [questioning a former Shabak official]: But you understand the criticism [levelled against it]?
Shabak official: Certainly. As long as the intelligence information deals with the non-Jewish population, Shabak receives applause from the public. But when it concerns us, the [Jewish] citizens, this naturally arouses public debate.”
EFF criticized the secrecy with which such systems are developed and implemented. This applies in spades to the opaque manner in which The Tool is being used:
Disturbingly, most of the public information about government’s emerging location surveillance programs comes from anonymous sources, and not official explanations. Transparency is a cornerstone of democratic governance, especially now, in the midst of a public health crisis. If the government is considering such new surveillance programs, it must publicly explain exactly what it is planning, why this would help, and what rules would apply. History shows that when government builds new surveillance programs in secret, these programs quickly lead to unjustified privacy abuses. That’s one reason EFF has long demanded transparent democratic control over whether government agencies may deploy new surveillance technology.
This thoughtful passage warns governments that before engaging in these massive new surveillance schemes, they must justify their efficacy in a thorough manner (also standards which Israel has ignored):
Because new government dragnet location surveillance powers are such a menace to our digital rights, governments should not be granted these powers unless they can show the public how these powers would actually help, in a significant manner, to contain COVID-19. Even if governments could show such efficacy, we would still need to balance the benefit of the government’s use of these powers against the substantial cost to our privacy, speech, and equality of opportunity. And even if this balancing justified government’s use of these powers, we would still need safeguards, limits, auditing, and accountability measures. In short, new surveillance powers must always be necessary and proportionate.
In fact, the EFF privacy advocates point out that no currently known geo-location technology can pinpoint an individual’s location to within the six-foot claimed ‘zone of concern’ for Coronavirus social contact. The most precision currently available is to within 15 feet. Lest you think that is a minor problem, the number of people caught up in a dragnet based on six feet versus 15 feet is astronomical. Which only adds to the scale of violation of individual rights and privacy. Again, concerns few in Israel seem to have.
Another unaddressed concern of transforming Covid-19 prevention from a medical to a security model is that victims will feel a social stigma concerned with their condition. They will feel ostracism and even violence directed at them if they reveal their condition by approaching medical authorities, or even having the health ministry or law enforcement contact them to warn them of their condition. This will cause them to go underground, which in turn would expose many more potential victims to the contagion.
As I noted above in warning that the weakest in society tend to be targeted by such methods, anyone in Israel living outside the law, including tens of thousands of refugees and Palestinian workers, would certainly fear seeking medical care. These are considered the dregs of Israeli society and they know it. Unfortunately, for the huge numbers of racist Israelis, they can get this disease from even the poorest and weakest. No amount of violence or hatred directed against such victims can protect Israeli Jews. All the more reason to treat these victims with dignity and respect, encouraging them to seek treatment without fear of the sort of degradation victims have faced from Israeli authorities.
Cell Phone Providers Deputized as Agents of State Surveillance
In 2002, when the Knesset set out the terms by which the Shabak would operate, it offered a provision requiring cell phone providers to share subscriber data with the intelligence agency. Though it expected there would be opposition from legislators there was, to its surprise, none. So the dam of privacy burst. Henceforward, the companies would willingly share the private information of every subscriber with the Shin Bet. They, of course, were not permitted to notify users that their personal data was being collected and monitored. In the U.S. the government pressured companies to do this. But unlike in Israel, there was no law which explicitly directed them to do it. So companies like AT&T complied willingly. While others resisted. In Israel, no one resisted after the law was passed.
Bergman gives free rein to the Shabak to boast about the immeasurable help the information has offered in combatting terrorism: “it has saved the lives of innumerable Israelis,” one former spy agency employee claims. This is a mantra chanted regularly by these intelligence agencies when they seek to justify an otherwise disturbing breach of human rights: of course, it’s worth sacrificing a minor inconvenience compared to keeping the nation safe. The problem is that these shadowy figures never tell you specifically which terror attacks were thwarted and whose lives were saved. They expect you to take them at their word. Alas, most Israelis do.
Equally disturbing is that no one monitors the Shabak’s activities as it compiles and makes use of The Tool. Only five Knesset members of the Intelligence Committee know anything about it, and they offer little substantive oversight hearing a general report only once a year. Former members of this committee who Bergman spoke with didn’t even know The Tool existed. Others knew, but had no idea the extent of the data collected.
Even worse, when Netanyahu sought to use it for the first time to fight Coronavirus, he allowed the matter to be discussed by the committee. However, when the latter balked at approving its use and adjourned without doing so, the prime minister did an end-around and used an administrative regulation to approve it himself. This is the behavior of a police state, not of a democratic state.
Bergman, as is his wont, offers minor objections and raises ethical concerns. This allows him to assuage his liberal conscience. But he signals his ultimate sympathies by permitting multiple Shabak sources to sing the praises of The Tool, to boast it is an asset democratic countries must use, and that were it not for The Tool the agency would have to engage in methods far more damaging like assassinations and “30-day arrests in the hole.” All this neglects the key objection: if other democratic societies struggling against terror have not resorted to Israel’s methods, why couldn’t Israel do the same? As usual, the arguments offered by the Shabak to justify its egregious violations of individual rights are shallow and self-serving.
Clearly, the very reporting of this story by Bergman originates from the Shabak itself. My presumption is that as soon as Bibi revealed The Tool’s existence, it realized it had to get ahead of the story to head off public criticism. As a result, it fed the story to Bergman, who naturally offered it a huge amount of print space to spin its side of the story.
Returning to the report itself, the Israeli journalist informs readers that many agencies and officials outside of the intelligence agencies have approached the Shabak for help in various investigations. But, he reassures readers, the spy agency is very careful about drawing distinctions between proper and improper use. It does so, he claims, in order to “prevent the prime minister from exploiting the Shabak” for his own personal use. He notes that Netanyahu indeed demanded that the Shabak use the database to monitor the communications of all the intelligence agencies and chiefs privy to the secret plans to attack Iran. Those include the heads of AMAN military intelligence and the Mossad. It refused.
Nevertheless, there is a wee small problem here: both Israeli intelligence agencies–the Shabak and Mossad–are supervised by the prime minister. No other government minister or agency oversees them. So, of course, they are easily exploited by the official who supervises them.
Indeed, the reason The Tool’s existence was exposed was via an unexpected announcement from the prime minister who claimed that it would be used to fight the Coronavirus epidemic. Little or no thought was given beforehand to the precedent that this would set for future exploitation of the database. Netanyahu needed to show the public he was in command of the situation. The best way he could think to do this was to brag about the existence of The Tool and the powerful impact it could have in mitigating the contagion.
When Shabak Officials First Learned about Snowden and the NSA Scandal, They Laughed
A former Shabak official tells Bergman that his colleagues laughed when they learned of the scandal caused by Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive breaches of U.S. citizens’ privacy by the NSA via the maintenance of databases on U.S. and foreign citizens. Databases which made no distinction between those it monitored; whether they were innocent citizens or those suspected of being a security threat. In Israel, the Shabak had long enjoyed the right to create such volumes of intelligence data. No one inquired, no one complained.
Israel is always willing to offer the world the “bounty” of its experience in trampling on human rights in order to attain security objectives. NSO Group, whose malware was used by Saudi Arabia in the assassination of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, is developing new technology which essentially would offer a “civilian” version of The Tool. According to Bloomberg:
NSO Group Ltd.’s product analyzes huge volumes of data to map people’s movements to identify who they’ve come in contact with, which can then be used to stop the spread of infection, according to a person familiar with the matter.
About a dozen countries are testing the NSO technology, the person familiar said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a private matter. The software takes two weeks of mobile-phone tracking information from the infected person — the incubation time of the virus — then matches with location data collected by national mobile phone companies that pinpoints citizens who were in the patient’s vicinity for more than 15 minutes and are vulnerable to contagion, the person said.
NSO claims that the product would send a text message to anyone who is found to have been in the vicinity of a confirmed Coronavirus victim. It would only notify authorities of the social contact if that individual tested positive for the virus. Further, the company claims that this tool is solely for civilian, and not security use. Therefore, it would not require an export license from the Israeli defense ministry. This has been posing a threat to the company as Amnesty International has sued it in Israeli courts demanding the ministry revoke licenses for its hacking product, Pegasus. This product would offer a new revenue stream for the NSO that would (it hopes) not enrage human rights groups and bypass the potential logjam of needing government authorization for export.
As European countries consider emulating the Israeli approach and using their own version of geo-location technology to monitor and restrict pandemic victims, it’s important to recognize what values and rights they are trampling. An Israeli human rights activist offered this warning not just to Israelis but to the rest of the world:
In Taiwan, Singapore and all of Europe, governments hired private companies that send the data they collect to health ministries, Altshuler noted. “Nowhere have they involved the secret services,” she said.
While certainly healthy citizens deserve protection from those who are ill, disease does not strip the sick of their rights entirely. And just as the canary in the coal mine warns minors when oxygen runs low, so the rights of the weakest in society offer an indication of the health of society overall. In Israel, the sick, like the canary, are dying not just from Covid-19, but from the death of their rights as citizens.