Israel defends the use of surveillance technology on protesters’ smartphones

Deepak Gupta
Deepak Gupta February 3, 2022
Updated 2022/02/03 at 10:37 AM

Israel’s attorney general confirmed the Shin Bet security agency’s use of cell phone tracking technology to monitor and threaten Palestinian protesters at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site last year.

The decision, taken on Tuesday, drew sharp criticism from the civil rights group that contested the technology’s use. The group warned that this would have a “chilling effect” on the country’s Arab minority.

The attorney general’s action was in response to a complaint about a series of text messages sent last May to hundreds of Palestinians at the height of one of the city’s most turbulent periods in years. At the time, Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli police at the Al Aqsa mosque in violence that helped spark an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

Using its tracking technology, the Shin Bet sent a text message to people who were determined to be in the area of ​​the clashes and told them “we will hold you accountable” for acts of violence.

Recipients included Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel. While some recipients participated in the clashes, many others, such as people who lived, worked or prayed in the area, received the message in error and said they were surprised or frightened by the message.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, a civil society group, filed a complaint with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s office, asking him to suspend use of the technology. He cited the use of the tool in a large group of people and the threatening language of the text.

In its response, the attorney general’s office acknowledged that there were problems with the message, both with its language and because the mass distribution included unintended targets. But he said the use of the technology was a legitimate security tool and that the security service had revised its procedures to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

“Following discussions with us on this matter, lessons were learned within the security agency and guidelines were formulated in various aspects with the aim of preventing the recurrence of problems like this one,” the opinion said. He said the office was not planning any further intervention in the matter.

Tuesday was the last day of Mandelblit’s six-year term. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, or ACRI, expressed disappointment with the decision.

“They say they have the authority to keep sending this kind of text to people,” said Gil Gan-Mor, who leads the group’s unit on human rights in the digital age. “We think differently”.

He said authorities have tools to investigate and prosecute people suspected of violence, but sending threatening messages is not the way to stay safe.

“Obviously this will have a frightening effect, to say the least, on the practice of legitimate activities, like going to a protest or praying somewhere,” he said. The group is studying the decision and will decide in the coming days whether to file an appeal with the Israeli Supreme Court, he added.

ACRI had previously filed legal challenges to the government’s use of the same Shin Bet tracking technology as a contact tracing tool to stop the spread of the coronavirus early in the pandemic.

The Israeli Supreme Court ended up restricting the tool’s use to specific cases, and studies found it to be largely ineffective in identifying people with COVID-19.

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