Google-Govt deal on data platform: Good for Israelis?

The Israeli government will be working with Google to develop ways to allow easier, more efficient access to data and services – and not everyone thinks that’s a good idea

Google Israel chairman Meir Brand (L) with former Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Google Israel chairman Meir Brand (L) with former Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israel is a wonderful place to visit – but it’s not such a great place to do business, according to the World Bank. It’s Doing Business project ranks Israel in 35th place as a preferred destination for companies to set up shop, behind much of Europe and Asia – and even Rwanda.

Israel did beat out France and Spain, though, which ranked lower on criteria considered by the Bank, such as starting a business, getting construction permits, enforcing contracts, hooking up new construction to the national electricity grid – and registering property with the government, with Israel ranking 151 out of 189 countries surveyed by the project.

The government of Israel has had enough, and it’s turning to the data professionals at Google to help it clean up its act. On Wednesday, Finance Minister Yair Lapid signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Google Israel chairman Meir Brand “to establish a framework for continued cooperation and for advancing the joint purposes of the parties.”

But hold on a minute. Is having the government develop a data access platform with a private company, especially one like Google that is so adept at working with data, a good idea? “Both parties would doubtlessly enter into this deal with the best of intentions and the most serious security available,” said Internet security expert Dr. Tal Pavel. “But I still see a very strong possibility that things could go very wrong.”

According to the memorandum of understanding signed by Lapid and Brand, the two entities will develop a method for the government to use Google’s technology, with ministries and agencies working with the company to develop applications that will allow citizens to interact more easily with the government. Filing requests and getting permits, for example, could become as automated a process as paying a credit card bill online, as long as strict, secure programming rules and access methods are instituted, with human interaction required only when things go “wrong.”

Applications could also be developed for medical and National Insurance payment applications and records, or to help job-seekers access information about positions collected by the unemployment office. Users could update and change business records, and analyzing Big Data for a plethora of purposes, such as using Google Predict’s API (the very same one that makes suggestions to fill in the search term in Google’s search box, as it attempts to figure out what you are looking for) to anticipate issues and problems that need to be dealt with.

And, of course, the MoU says that Google and government “aspire to cooperate to advance Israel’s ranking in the ‘Doing Business’ index of the World Bank.”

The project, the MoU says, is part of the framework of the government’s “Digital Israel” project, which, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, will “expand connection to the Internet and access to digital services among all populations in Israel, including those in the geographical and social periphery.”

The project’s success, the PMO said, will be judged on the ability to connect to government and business services “in an advanced digital environment, ensuring secure and safe access, the enhancement of human resources, the advancement of digital technology and communications in business, and enhanced digital literacy among Israelis.”

Besides giving the government access to top technology to improve its connection to citizens and the business community, the MoU also provides for unprecedented cooperation between government institutions and a private company, although there is a non-exclusivity clause in the deal, meaning that the government is not committed to using any app or technology Google develops.

The MoU establishes a framework for the two entities to work together. Specific arrangements on how Google will help the government need to be worked out, and a committee will be formed in the coming weeks to begin discussing that. The MoU does not lay out exactly what access Google will have to government data about Israelis; a spokesperson for the Finance Ministry was unable to comment on that question, but it’s likely that Knesset legislation would be needed in order to allow Google to access databases if that were necessary to build and test apps and technologies.

Commenting on the MoU, Lapid said, “innovation is an engine to create an economy that places the middle class at its center. Integrating the Internet with government services will ease bureaucratic processes for citizens and small businesses. Even more importantly, the digital era requires greater openness. This is the most powerful way to advance competition.”

Google Israel chairman Brand said, “this agreement opens the door to new ways of helping the public. Israel is a world leader in developing solutions based on technology, and the public sector can become a model of innovation in this regard.”

Dr. Tal Pavel (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Tal Pavel (Photo credit: Courtesy)

When a final agreement is signed, it’s also likely to have specific criteria on what Google can access and what it can do with that information. But agreements – even signed contracts – don’t always ensure that things work out the way they are supposed to, said Internet security expert Dr. Tal Pavel.

“This agreement provides for a cooperative framework for two data giants to work together,” said Pavel, a lecturer at Netanya Academic College and head of the MiddleEastNet web site. “In the case of Google, the information we share is more or less voluntary, as they collect data on our Web activity via the sites we visit and the things we do on-line.” Although many people are surprised at the huge amount of data Google has about them – including information they never specifically handed over – the fact that they are using Google’s services, and agreed to allow the company to collect data, makes their engagement with the company voluntary.

Not so for the government, said Pavel, which is legally empowered to collect information about income, family size, health conditions, criminal activity, property holdings, and much more. “Imagine if the government got hold of your Google profile,” said Pavel. “They could see what sites you surf, what you buy on the Internet, and check it against your declared income. If it doesn’t match, you could expect a visit from the tax man.”

Of course, no government would agree to allow a private company to use citizens’ information in such a manner. But, as with so many other things, there is the “human factor.” Israel should take an example from the recent Edward Snowden scandal, said Pavel. “Snowden was a system administrator, not a high level executive, and he had access to the most sensitive information the United States possesses. Now, that information is out there for everyone to see.”

Even with all safety precautions in place, Pavel said, “it’s just too much information for either entity to have access to.” For an underpaid civil servant, the temptation might just be too great, he added. “If an ‘Israel Snowden’ emerges from this story, pilfering information for his own personal benefit, I would not be surprised.”

The Finance Ministry had no comment at this time, a spokesperson said.

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