Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Evolving Listening – Israeli Case Study

-- By RamShchory - 01 May 2015

Concepts of privacy in general, and particularly of state listening have – to use a major understatement – significantly changed in recent years. That brings forward the question of our ability to grasp the privacy concerns, and to really understand what it is we are giving up, as technology marches forward. The importance of this question comes from the notion that public debate in this area will not be fruitful – or not even exist – if people were to have misconceptions about what is really going on. If people do not know about – and are not afraid of – the state monitoring them, they will not do anything about it. I will use Israel as a case study to analyze these questions.

Listening in Israel

Israeli Familiarity with Traditional Listening

Israelis’ familiarity with concepts of state listening can be learned from the key role intelligence has in their lives. Out of a population of 8,297,000 Israelis, around 50% are serving in the Israel Defense Forces, in which the intelligence unit is the biggest unit. Not all the soldiers in the IDF are aware of the diversified listening abilities, but in the military’s basic training almost all are being acquainted with the basic concepts of listening performed by the army they serve in.

Moreover, the world renowned Israeli intelligence abilities are a significant component in the Israeli identity and culture, often a source of patriotic pride. The Israeli intelligence unit graduates are considered intelligent and talented people. They are often mentioned as the pillars of the Israeli High-Tech industry. The Yom Kippur War demonstrates this centrality of intelligence from a different angle, as the war’s severe results are often attributed to the intelligence failure in predicting the upcoming war.

The Elusive Concept of Inward Listening

Even if one agrees that Israelis are familiar with listening efforts, that is not to say that they are aware of inward directed listening. First, the state of ongoing military conflict in Israel creates a convenient dichotomy of us and them. It is very easy to associate the surveillance capabilities with the “them”. Second, it is much more convenient to think that the immense monitoring capabilities of your government are not directed at you.

Nevertheless, I believe Israeli people do not settle for this simplistic depiction of the intelligence efforts, and are indeed aware of the possibility, and reality, of intelligence efforts made by their own state and directed against them. There are several reasons for my belief.

First, the Israeli legal system directly and (relatively) openly deals with the subject of inward listening. For example, if the Israel Security Agency (Shabak) requires information from a telecommunication carrier, it has to get an approval in a procedure monitored by the Israeli Prime Minister and Attorney General. Another example is an administrative petition filed under the Freedom of Information Law, in the demand to reveal how many wiretapping activities to Israeli targets were approved by the Minister of Defense. The petition was denied (appeal pending), but nevertheless promoted public discussion.

Second, Shabak itself is openly using intelligence capabilities against Israeli targets through a special unit. A well-known target to these (arguably insufficient) efforts are the Jewish terrorist groups applying severe violence towards Arab Israelis or Palestinians.

Third, in the last few decades Israel has experienced a significant immigration wave in which hundreds of thousands of Jewish people from the former Soviet Union came to Israel. This had a major effect on the Israeli culture, including the notion of inward listening and its dangers, familiar to the residents of the Soviet Union.

The World is Changing

The problem is that even if all I said above is true, the world as we – or in this context, the Israelis – know it, is rapidly changing in ways we cannot imagine. And with it, monitoring and listening also change beyond recognition – including an escalation from state monitoring to private monitoring, bringing forward a whole new array of privacy risks – so our awareness to past risks might be irrelevant.

To illustrate the unimaginable privacy issues we must deal with today, I will give some examples. The internet of things – for example, a laundry machine that knows when you are abroad, or a variety of wearables – represents potential monitoring and misuse of detailed personal information. It creates a complete ecosystem connecting everybody, everywhere, full with information, ripe for picking. Another issue is the risk imposed by the spread of video surveillance integrated with biometric facial recognition technology, so we can be watched and identified everywhere. From the user’s point of view we have elaborate tracking, submission of private data to the “cloud”, or use of social networks. The list goes on and on.

Moreover, not only has the technology changed, but the targets did too. If in the past listening – inward or otherwise – was targeting specific people or communications; today we face mass surveillance. Therefore, even if 50% of the Israelis serve in the army, and everybody knows that the Shabak targets Israelis, we have no indication of Israeli familiarity with the methods, magnitude and targeting of new surveillance.


The Israeli case can teach us several valuable lessons about the perception of privacy and state monitoring. First, the incredible technology evolution we are experiencing in recent years and in years to come puts important concepts out of our conceptual risk. We must therefore attempt to refresh our thinking and adapt to the technology transitions. We cannot do that without understanding the transitions, and the underlying technology. Second, not only aren’t we today in a better place to understand privacy concepts – in our case, inward listening – but we are in a worse place. The Israeli case teaches us that even people who understood concepts of inward listening are unable to grasp it now due to the changes in technology and targeting. But they think they do understand. They may be indifferent about state listening because they are sure they are not the targets, unaware of the game, and how it has changed.


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r2 - 29 Jun 2015 - 15:33:03 - MarkDrake
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