Police Eavesdropping on WhatsApp Groups
On November 29, 2020, we appealed to the Deputy Attorney General following complaints that we had received regarding police officers joining civilian WhatsApp groups in order to gather information on the planning of protests and organizing of demonstrations. From the testimonies we gathered, it appears that police are joining existing groups on WhatsApp for sharing and discussing information about protests. In the vast majority of cases, these police officers are not participating whatsoever in conversation, nor are they identifying themselves or informing the other participants in the conversation that their messages are being read and their information collected. That is, these police officers are effectively masquerading as concerned citizens interested in the subject of the group.
For example, a police officer joined a WhatsApp group on police violence against the Haredi community. Following the officer’s surveilling of the conversation, the group’s administrator was summoned to the police station for questioning. During the interrogation, it became clear that the context for the summons emerged from the WhatsApp group, and the interrogation focused on information that was shared in the group, or was pertinent to the group’s establishment. Following the interrogation and the fear felt by group members of further police harassment, the WhatsApp group was closed.
In our letter to the Deputy Attorney General, initiated by ACRI Attorneys Reut Shaer, Director of ACRI’s Public Hotline Unit, and Sivan Tahel, Freedom of Protest Coordinator, we claimed that the police’s infiltration and information collection from WhatsApp groups was conducted without a legal source of authority. The police’s actions unlawfully infringed on a host of basic rights, including: the right to privacy; the right to free assembly; the right to protest; and the right to freedom of expression.
Additionally, we noted the similarity between secretly surveilling WhatsApp groups, and wiretapping or other forms of eavesdropping, as defined according to the Secret Monitoring Law. Alternatively, we compared it to searching a computer for material according to the standing procedural regulations under criminal law. In both regulations, there is a clear requirement of specific and reasonable cause for suspicion of criminal conduct; the regulations also include checks, balances, and other means of oversight. Furthermore, we claimed that the police are prohibited from covertly observing communications between citizens in this manner.