Restricting Surveillance Technologies
Calcalist’s exposé on police use of Pegasus spyware, which has justifiably jarred the entire nation, concerns us, but we can’t say it surprised us. In early November, we appealed to the Attorney General following findings that the software had been installed on the phones of Palestinian activists in human rights organizations in the occupied territories. We went to the Attorney General, the State Attorney, and the Public Security Committee of the Knesset as soon as Calcalist reported that the software was also used by the police to look into Israeli citizens, such as government workers, protesters, and journalists. Today we appealed to the new Attorney General on the matter.
We think that an external, independent commission of inquiry needs to be set up right away to look into the police's possible illegal use of Pegasus spyware, which, if done as described in Calcalist, would be theft on the part of police systems and their oversight bodies.
Yet, to our knowledge thus far, it is clear that the police integrated the use of Pegasus spyware into their arsenal of tools without conducting a public discussion or receiving the Knesset’s stance on the matter. Our stance is clear: the police have no authority per the laws in place to use spyware, even by virtue of wiretapping laws. It must thus cease to make use of it immediately.
Time and again, we identify the same problematic pattern — law enforcement agencies are equipped with new surveillance technologies, some of which are initially piloted in the occupied territories, and proceed to be covertly integrated for operational use against Israeli citizens as well. Such technologies are used on the basis of questionable or outdated laws. In the absence of an up-to-date legal framework, such technologies are used widely, unsupervised, and improperly.
Take the General Security Service (GSS), for example: During the coronavirus pandemic, it came out that the GSS had set up a secret, powerful, and invasive mass surveillance project based on a vague part of a law passed 20 years ago. This project allowed the GSS to keep an eye on all citizens at all times. This project was covertly conducted without public discussion. The GSS's communications database could be used to invade privacy just as badly as wiretapping. Searches could reveal very personal information about each of us, but they were done without court orders and with almost no outside supervision. A secret service with this much power needs to be careful, but the Attorney General's Office has no plans to step in.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we warned that the conversion of surveillance technologies developed to thwart external security threats for internal civilian needs is unacceptable and risks a slippery slope. The past year has proven us right. During the coronavirus pandemic, the GSS used its surveillance abilities to track down people they had contact with. This led to pressure to use surveillance for regular police needs as well. Although the former Attorney General restrained ambitions to authorize the GSS to use its surveillance tools to combat crime, in parallel, the GSS broadened its interpretation of powers in such a sense that it warrants its intervention in certain criminal investigations that should solely be conducted by the police, such as hate crimes, domestic violence, and riots amid protests. Concerns have also been raised that this kind of intervention is biased based on nationality and mostly targets Arab citizens. So, it makes sense that more and more advanced surveillance tools are being used to look into crimes committed for reasons other than security.
Last May, the GSS gave itself permission to send hundreds of threatening text messages to Arab citizens and residents who were not suspected of anything. Their only crime was that they lived near the al-Aqsa Mosque, where the GSS said there had been riots. In response to our complaint, the GSS said that there had been a mistake in how the messages were written and what they said, but they didn't see any reason to stop using this method in the future. We are of the opinion that the GSS lacks the authority to threaten citizens with text messages and that this constitutes a scandal. We intend to take action to rescind this practice.
ACRI will keep working to make sure that the government only uses powerful surveillance technologies after getting permission from the law. This means that there will be clear limits on the use of force, strong protections against exploitation, and external mechanisms for supervision and oversight. We will also designate red lines, as some technologies exist that are better off not being used at all.
Join us in the struggle and take part in our “Stop Routine Surveillance” campaign.
Atty. Gil Gan-Mor
Civil and Social Rights
Human Rights in the Digital Age Project