After a month of debate over the Israeli government’s controversial use of mass surveillance to track down covid-19 infection cases, the Israeli attorney general is expected to give green light to yet wider surveillance, the Hebrew media reported last Monday.
Since mid-March, the Israeli public opinion has been spinning around the use of surveillance technology by the Israeli government to try to contain the spread of coronavirus. Technologies to which Israelis are used, but that have been designed and historically implemented to repress Palestinians.
The fact that these techniques are being used for the first time publicly to control Israelis themselves is at the center of the current controversy. However, this controversy hides underneath it a much more structural reality. One that is a symptomatic complex of a colonial regime, rather than a debate over individual rights and privacy.
Intellectuals, journalists, activists and politicians have been criticizing Netanyahu for “going too far” with the surveillance measures. Indeed, when Netanyahu first announced the state of emergency in the Zionist state, on the 12th of March, he sounded more like declaring a war than explaining his government’s measures to contain the spread of a pandemic. Equating the Covid-19 virus with the resistance, Netanyahu said that his state was at “war against an invisible enemy”, as he made public the fact that his government was going to use “technological means” to track Covid-19 patients and their entourage.
These means include essentially phone tracking logarithms, that allow police to geographically locate cell-phones and trace their movement. These logarithms also collect and store data about individuals and their social interactions, exposing their lives completely to the surveillance of government agencies. Considering themselves living in a democracy, Israelis would see these measures as a violation of the right to privacy. However, as with basically every single right violation in the Israeli, there is always a justification. The mother of all justifications: Security.
Usually, security has meant the security of Israelis, in the name of which violations have always been justified to other populations, mainly the Palestinians. Khaled Odetallah, Palestinian writer and lecturer in colonial studies explains that “the basic idea behind the security argument is that it ‘saves lives’ of Israelis. These mass surveillance techniques are also meant to ‘save lives’, which makes it a security issue”.
To this logic, privacy is an essential target, because the ‘threat to lives’ is supposed to be, as Netanyahu himself put it; “invisible”. According to Khaled Odetallah; “the entire terminology and the logic behind it comes from anti-insurrection doctrine, replacing ‘terrorism’ with ‘Coronavirus’. They are both contagious, they are both invisible and most importantly, they spread socially”.
This time, however, the field of action as well as the threat are within the Israeli society. Legally, this means that the security measures are to be implemented in a different legal framework. When it comes to Palestinians in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, it is the Israeli martial law that sets the context; The Israeli army legislates through military orders, executes out of any kind of judicial control and even runs the military courts in which Palestinians are prosecuted. But in the case of surveilling Israelis, things are different.
Netanyahu had first to declare the state of emergency, accused by many critics of ignoring the Knesset. The Israeli attorney general approved the state of emergency under the promise that the data collected will be destroyed after 30 days and that it will not be used for judicial purposes. The only problem with these commitments is that they have no guarantees. Sharon Abraham Weiss, an Israeli legal activist, has described the implementation of mass surveillance by her government as “huge and without any checks and balances”. This could create a situation that would be very hard to reverse, according to Weiss, who believes that “the Shin Bet is given too much power and it will be difficult to climb back down the tree”.
A structural problem
Many Israeli activists like Weiss criticize the Israeli use of mass surveillance from the perspective that it is the result of a growing hegemony of the executive branch. A lack of institutional oversight. But there is much more into it. In fact, Weiss herself explains that “since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, it has been living in a default state of emergency. It’s there all the time”.
In fact, not only the state of emergency has been the default since 1948, but its discriminatory nature as well. For the first 20 years of the state’s history, its Palestinian population, those who weren’t expelled during the Nakba, were submitted to a military rule that lived side by side with the civil regime, reserved for the Jewish population. During those first years, there was no organized Palestinian resistance and there was no war going on with Arab neighbors, who were undergoing internal upheaval following their defeat in 1948. Both the state of emergency and the segregation of Palestinians were from the beginning rooted in the colonial character of a state built around its military institution, in constant need of more “security”.
This militarization has only grown since then. Today, it crosses the Israeli political and economic system, through and through, with cybersecurity technology at the heart of it. In fact, cybersecurity is one of the most influential industries in the occupation state. Not only because the state invests in portraying itself as a “cybernation”, but also because of the “revolving door” between this industry and the military and intelligence institutions. As Palestinian writer and analyst Marwa Fatafta points out; “Those who are serving in the Israeli intelligence or army cyber units go to the private sector and sell tech solutions to the world, based on the experiences they gained at the army, without any legal framework”.
This cybersecurity economy, however, has been exposed in recent years due to the implication of Israeli companies in several human rights violations affairs. One of them is the Israeli NSO Group, producer of the “Pegasus” spyware, later proved to have been used in the surveillance of UAE citizen and human rights activist Ahmed Mansour, as well as in the tracking of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. NSO was later sued by WhatsApp, who claimed that the firm used its application to collect data on over 1400 users, including 100 journalists and civil society activists.
Another case is the Israeli company AnyVision, which was exposed last year and with it, the entire mass surveillance system of the Israeli occupation. Last November, Microsoft decided to divest from Anyvision after a pressure campaign over the use of the company’s facial recognition cameras in the occupation’s checkpoints in the occupied West Bank. In fact, the occupation regime and the Israeli cyber industry’s reputation are closely related, since the occupied territories are the trial field of all Israeli cyber-surveillance technologies.
The wrong debate
As more governments announce their will to use mass surveillance to counter the Covid-19 virus, the opportunity presents itself not only to overcome Israeli companies’ exposure in human rights violation cases but also to whitewash the entire Israeli security-based system. Phone tracking might be causing debate for its use on Israelis, but in the name of containing the pandemic, the Israeli occupation has been expanding repressive measures on Palestinians in the West Bank, for whom mass surveillance is every-day life. Imposing closure on entire towns, like Shuafat, in East Jerusalem, home to 100.000 Palestinians is one example. The covid-19 infection has also become, by military order, a reason for arbitrary, indefinite detention of Palestinians and renewal of previous administrative orders as well.
“Worldwide, the state is spreading its hegemony, but with less opposition” points out Khaled Odetallah; “It is a capitalization of the crisis to reinforce power”. In the case of Israel, however, it is an opportunity to rebrand a deeply-rooted repressive nature as another case of debate over the hard choice, between health and privacy.