LISTEN: Big Brother is always watching, says expert. Pandemic has made it worse
ToI Podcast InterviewTroubling insight into decision-makers' tech illiteracy

LISTEN: Big Brother is always watching, says expert. Pandemic has made it worse

Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler says Israeli surveillance is much closer to China in terms of invasion of citizens’ privacy than to European governments or liberal Asian countries

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

For much of the coronavirus crisis, the Israeli secret service has been an unwilling vehicle for the government as it used digital means, primarily cellphone data, to retrace the movements of citizens infected with COVID-19 and find out who was in their proximity before they were diagnosed. On Monday, government ministers voted to create a panel to give the controversial measure new scrutiny in the face of a possible second wave of COVID-19.

To understand what is currently happening in terms of government surveillance and what has changed during the coronavirus crisis — both in Israel and on the international stage — The Times of Israel Podcast spoke with Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, the head of the Democracy in the Information Age project at the Israel Democracy Institute. The 30-year-old, independently funded nonpartisan think tank addresses issues confronting Israeli democracy.

Cassandra-like, for months Shwartz Altshuler has voiced her concerns over the measure’s potential blurring of democratic borders and invasion of citizens’ privacy. This new panel is being created after a July 1 Knesset vote in which legislators passed a bill authorizing the Shin Bet security service to again use phone surveillance technology, usually reserved for combating terrorism, to help track down potential coronavirus carriers for another three-week period.

The panel comes in light of growing concern over the measure’s potential over-reach and will be headed by Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen and include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

An existing smartphone app for tracking the spread of infection which determines who has been in contact with people who have been infected with the coronavirus. (iStock)

Our conversation with Shwartz Altshuler is sobering, with troubling insight into decision-makers’ technological illiteracy even as they bestow new, sweeping authority on the Israeli secret service to track private citizens.

Shwartz Altshuler, who earned a doctorate in law from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed postdoctoral studies at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, deals with media, from telecom policy to legal aspects of new technologies such as AI, facial recognition, and the right to privacy in a tech-saturated world.

Shwartz Altshuler assured The Times of Israel that Big Brother is already absolutely watching us.

“Big Brother could have the shape of the government and security agencies, but it could also be huge internet platforms that their business model is around our personal data. Yeah, we’re kinda trapped from both sides,” said Shwartz Altshuler. “But we do not surrender!”

A tech solution for a tech-age pandemic

Specifically addressing Israel’s surveillance efforts during the current coronavirus crisis, Shwartz Altshuler does not dismiss the efficacy of digital contact tracing out of hand.

“This is not the Spanish flu, after all. The year is 2020 and we can use technology in order to help us locate coronavirus patients to understand whom they met two weeks before,” she said. “Israel is special in that the government decided that the digital contact tracing would be a function of the Shin Bet — Israel’s secret service.”

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler testifies before the Central Elections Committee at the Knesset on August 8, 2019. (Screen capture/Facebook)

The Shin Bet already has access to all cellphone companies’ infrastructure and collects all cellphone history, including location, text messages, web activity. Usually this information is locked up and untouched, said Shwartz Altshuler, unless the agency is given a specific court order to fish it out of the archival vault.

During the coronavirus crisis, the government empowered the Shin Bet to use this “tool” for contact tracing for infected individuals. Israeli individuals who were discerned to be in the vicinity are sent text messages to go into quarantine.

The problem, said Shwartz Altshuler, is that the Supreme Court said that this is illegal because there is no legislation enabling the Shin Bet to use this capability for the coronavirus crisis.

The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Zvi Hauser (center) votes on a bill that would allow the Shin Bet to use tracking technology to identify those exposed to the coronavirus, on June 30, 2020. (Adena Welman/Knesset)

“Another issue is that the Shin Bet surveillance is based on GPS technology, which is not always precise enough so that it can measure specifically who was next to whom,” she said.

For example, consumers in shopping malls or residents of high-rise apartment buildings, and even doctors in hospitals treating patients, could receive messages that they must enter quarantine without true just cause. She also bemoaned a lack of a system of appeals against the text messages ordering citizens into quarantine.

The more mistakes the Shin Bet system creates, the less the public will it, she said. The planned panel will hopefully address these systemic errors.

How does Israel compare?

Shwartz Altshuler compares the Israeli use of intelligence tracking with what is happening on the ground in other countries. In Europe, for example, most countries offered a smartphone app which citizens can voluntarily download which would provide contact tracing.

The Health Ministry’s HaMagen application running on an iPhone. (Sam Sokol)

“We need the apps for two reasons, first of all because apps are voluntary. And if you don’t want to use these anti-democratic measures, such as the forced mass surveillance by the secret service, the substitute would be to tell people — go download the app and the app would do the same thing,” she said.

European countries’ voluntary apps are based on Bluetooth technology, which, she said, is more precise and less invasive of privacy. Assuming the Shin Bet is not using Trojan horse-type technology to break into a citizen’s cellphone, it does not have the capability to track Bluetooth without a user’s consent, she said.

We need to understand the limits of technology used by public authorities

“We need to understand the limits of technology used by public authorities,” said Shwartz Altshuler. “They know enough about us; I wouldn’t want to give them full access to our cellphones.”

If you look at international countries on a scale in terms of the amount of privacy versus government surveillance, unsurprisingly, China would be on the far side of lack of freedoms. The European countries that use a voluntary app for contact tracing would be on the far end of privacy and little government intervention. In the middle would be Asian democracies, such as South Korean and Taiwan, which have experience in controlling pandemics using technology from prior outbreaks.

Although the Israeli Health Ministry has developed a voluntary app called Hamagen (The Shield), it has not been widely used. Relying on secret service tracking, Israel, said Shwartz Altshuler, would be closer to China than the democratic Asian countries, which implement technology through their health ministries and do not activate their secret services.

During our conversation, Shwartz Altshuler also speaks about “autonomy traps,” in which an individual’s internet behavior patterns are analyzed in order to influence their vote through the most insidious means possible.

The Times of Israel podcasts are available for download on iTunesSoundcloudTuneIn, Pocket CastsStitcher, PlayerFM or wherever you get your podcasts.

Check out this recent podcast episode: ToI goes deep under Jerusalem’s Old City to a unique archaeological discovery near the Western Wall

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