If, as is being alleged in some circles, Israeli companies were involved in helping the US National Security Agency implement its PRISM data-gathering program, it stands to reason that those companies would have “practiced” their techniques on Israelis first in order to perfect their methodology and technology. And whether or not the two companies that are being cited did indeed work with the US government to gather information, Israel would have been a perfect “sandbox” (virtual practice zone) for the companies to perfect their technology surveillance, according to attorney Jonathan Klinger.

That is because the laws regarding privacy on the Internet and electronic communications in Israel are much more “liberal” — for the security agencies, that is – than they are in many other democracies, notably the US. Indeed, Israelis can only envy the uproar among Americans over the PRISM program, says Klinger, an internet privacy expert. Compared to the extremely wide powers of Israeli police and security organizations over electronic data, “the powers of the American agencies are a joke.”

According to an article in online computer magazine Wired, published last year but now again making headlines as the surveillance controversy unfolds in the US, two companies with Israeli connections or roots, Verint and Narus Systems, helped the NSA with its wiretapping and online surveillance activities.

Their websites would suggest both companies are capable of that kind of activity: Verint’s “Communications and Cyber Intelligence Solutions readily handle vast amounts of data from a wide variety of sources,” and its technology is capable of communications interception, mobile location tracking, “tactical communications intelligence,” and more, the company’s site says.

Narus (now owned by U.S. corporation Boeing) offers “enterprises and governments the tools to become fully aware and ready to respond to any event that may compromise their assets, people, environments or communities. Our technology is already in place around the globe, analyzing 30% of the world’s IP traffic and protecting some of the largest networks across five continents,” according to its site.

With the technology supplied by companies like these, the NSA, or any other government security agency, could quickly analyze hundreds of millions of communications (whether phone, e-mail, text message, etc.) for specified criteria, like terror plots. But in order to do the analysis, the security agencies need data to analyze – and according to the reports that have emerged this week, that data was supplied, whether willingly or otherwise, by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other online communication portals.

According to the reports, the US government’s PRISM data-gathering program (which, according to James Clapper, US Director of National Intelligence, is not aimed at Americans, but against foreigners, and only to prevent terror attacks) is facilitated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is specifically aimed at gathering intelligence on enemy agents or terrorists who are not US citizens. The government must show probable cause of security concerns to the organizations from which it is requesting the information.

That is apparently not the case in Israel, Klinger wrote in a blog post, “giving my two cents on Prism. Over the past decade, Israel has enacted a number of surveillance laws that allow unrestrained use of personal information of citizens for routine investigations, not only for the prevention of terrorism.

Among those laws is one ratified by the Knesset in 2007 allowing police and other agencies to request – and get – information about individuals under investigation, even without the requirement to get a warrant from a judge. Companies are required to supply information on individuals who may be connected — even circumstantially — to a crime. For example, if police suspect that a murder took place at a certain time and a specific location, they can request location data on customers from cellphone service providers, in order to identify those who were in the area when the crime was committed, said Klinger.

In 2009, police filed 9,000 requests for information from cellphone and Internet companies, including 2,000 for offenses relating to “public order” — offenses which, Klinger said, often had political overtones, aimed at leaders of protest groups and movements.

In fact, Klinger said, many of the activists who led protests over high prices and monopolization in the Israeli economy over the past several years have reported to him that their e-mail accounts (often Google Mail accounts) were hacked, as was Klinger’s own account several months ago. Google, in fact, has supplied police in Israel with information about hundreds of users over the past several years, and it’s likely other companies have done so as well. The difference is that “we know about Google, because they report the requests made by police. The other companies do not make such reports.”

In 2008, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a lawsuit against police and other security organizations, as well as against communications companies like Bezeq, cellphone service providers Cellcom and Pelephone, Internet service providers Netvision and Hot, and many others, claiming that police and security agencies, in collusion with the communications companies, had gone way beyond their authorities in demanding information about customers. The courts dismissed the case. Apparently emboldened, said Klinger, the government asked the Knesset to expand the number of agencies that could request data, to include tax authorities, the Agriculture and Environment Ministries, and even the Parks and Nature Authority.

As things stand today, all those agencies, and more, can request information from communications companies without having to present a warrant. Companies that refuse to comply may be hauled into court to justify why they refused. In such cases, said Klinger, the courts invariably rule for the government.

But that’s all par for the course in Israel, said Klinger. “Israelis are used to being spied on all the time,” he said. “Employers read their employees’ e-mail, the state sets up cameras to monitor speeding, parking, perimeter security, and others. The question we have to ask is: Do we need to be defended from criminals — or from the state?”