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. It was also used to detect Israelis who might engage in espionage.
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.
In acknowledging the far-reaching extent of the surveillance of all Israelis, the Shabak 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.”
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.
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