Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Once Bitten Twice Shy

On The Eroding Standard for Privacy With Regard To Israel's Internal Affairs

By UriHacohen - 22 Feb 2015

The Israeli public has accepted over the past twenty years, that there is an inverse relationship between their right to privacy and their right to security. Further, that the sacrifice of the former is a reasonable price to pay for the achievement of the latter. It is my belief that due to the government's policy during the previous decades of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Israeli public became accustomed to waive their right for privacy countless times and on an overall extensive scale. The outcome of this process is that a major breach on the right to privacy ,in the form of placement of thousands of cameras in the public space, is regarded by this public as de-minimis, not worthy of viable public discussion. I will begin this essay by presenting how the Israeli public is accustomed to the notion that a breach of privacy is unavoidable and then attempt to prove that this notion is affecting contemporary issues like violence among youth and vandalism.

Fighting Terrorism

The perception that there is a need to sacrifice the privacy of the individual for the security of the public is burned into the Israeli public consciousness. The backdrop for this phenomenon is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and it occurs in both the defensive and counter-offensive perspectives, I will elaborate on the former.

From a defensive perspective, the said phenomena arose from a wave of suicide bombing attacks against civilian population that started in 1989, during the First Intifada. When the frequency of these attacks became troubling, the public called for the enhancement in security and the government, facing the sudden economic burden of satisfying this need, created regulations that delegated this responsibility into the hands of private security companies. At the height of the Second Intifada existential threat among the civilian population was clear and present and not one person raised the argument of the right for privacy. Security guards were placed in the entrance of any and all public spaces, such as, restaurants, theaters and malls. These security guards preformed a mandatory check in every bag, allowed to preform pat-downs and ask questions. The general feeling was that a public place without sufficient security is not worthy of attending, because the danger is too great. Gil Mordecai Dzikansky described this feeling in his book about Terrorist Suicide Bombings: Attack Interdiction, Mitigation, and Response, in page 190:

"As security guards appeared outside many public facilities from supermarkets to movie theaters, checking bags of visitors, no one complained that their right to privacy had been violated. No one thought the threat of suicide bombers was a fantasy. It was the norm for Israelis to wait in line for mandatory (as opposed to random) security checks of their bags for explosives".

Although it is tempting to discuss the legitimacy of the Israeli government policy during these times, it is not my intent to do this here. Even assuming that when facing terrorism the Israeli government was right in its constitutional decision making and the balancing of human rights, still the damage of the militaristic propaganda and the aura of security related considerations left their damaging mark on the Israeli public.

After years of conflict, the Israeli public learned to live with the notion that privacy and security could not co-exist. These lessons learned while fighting terrorism are being implemented on internal civil affairs. This, although the internal affairs do not demand nearly as much of a breach on the right to privacy. Further, though the standard for privacy is constantly stepped upon, these issues are almost never part of the public discourse.

Fighting Youth Violence

A good example of the eroding standard of privacy concerns the growth in installation of surveillance cameras throughout many Israeli cities over the past years. These installations occur within the absence of legislative framework and without public discussion. In fact, they occur within an overall feeling of indifference by the Israeli public.

This trend of installing surveillance cameras started in the city of Eilat, in 2004. At that time local government began installing, on their own accord, surveillance devices in public areas, to document public movement, while providing only these words: "we do this to fight crime", as an explanation. Although this started as a sporadic trend, these actions, bolstered by government tailwind, became part of what is now known as the "City Without Violence" program. This program is one of the government flagship programs for combating anti-social behavior, violence, delinquency and crime.

These days, this program spread, thanks to government support, to more than eighty-six local authorities in Israel. In order to accomplish the programs moto of "prevention of violence, vandalism, and fortifying each individual's right to security", this program encourages installing an extensive network of surveillance cameras within the public space. A report of the Kneset Research and Information Center shows that within eight cities alone, almost three hundred cameras were installed and more than a thousand new cameras are prepared to be installed in the near future.

The extensive use of surveillance got almost no media coverage or legal balancing required by the constitution. In fact, until recently there was no legal framework whatsoever to regulate this highly offensive practice. Only late in 2012 the Israeli Information and Technology Authority published a regulation dealing with this issue, but these barely received any public discourse and it is even unclear whether they are regulated under the correct authority.

I believe that the background of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the ongoing notion of security crisis and the fragility of freedom, made the public underestimate their constitutional right for privacy. The unfortunate truth is that there are only small group of activists organizations (the biggest of them is the Association for Civil Rights in Israel), that proudly bear the flag of the basic right of human dignity and privacy; and, through the roaring crash of national security propaganda, their faint protest is barely noticeable.

What’s at stake?

It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away" – 1984 G. Orwell.

The threat of visual surveillance, in the era of the growing use of social networks is not a new threat. Nevertheless, the security orientated rhetoric that dominated the Israeli public discourse for decades allowed for outward surveillance mechanisms and technology to flourish. Having this trend to gradually seep inwards, given the limited geographical area and small population, might have devastating affects on privacy rights in Israel.

Cultivating fear has produced in the Israeli public a constant mode of "fight or flight", In this state-of-mind the idea of privacy takes a back seat. The result is far from limited to the practice of installing surveillance cameras. Paradoxically, Israel's heightened security situation that made its public indifferent to privacy concerns is also the reason that this same public is especially vulnerable to the harms of surveillance. In Israel, the military service is mandatory and many recruits served in highly sensitive positions. That type of positions makes them a target for monitoring purposes. Furthermore, many former recruits continue to be employed in the field of national security; That occupation constitutes them as "persons of interest" and thereby as targets for surveillance.

Thereby, as these are people who are at severe risk of being surveilled, they should not be callous about their privacy. In 2015, for example, there was an article in a popular Israeli magazine, warning Israeli LinkedIn users from revealing their army background as former employment experience in their LinkedIn profile - lest the phrase "headhunter" would apply to them in a more literal meaning.

What can we do?

I do not think that the formal Israeli Privacy Law is a suitable mechanism to comprehend the extensive level of indifference where privacy is concerned. As Michael Birnhack and Niva Elkin-Koren wrote in their paper from 2011, in the context of the web (page 382): "If users know, understand, or care about their personal data, websites are more likely to compete in providing appropriate privacy policies to attract more users". This concept is fortified in the public discussion over surveillance cameras and other tracking devices. Only public awareness can generate a change.

As a practical matter I believe that the privacy administration in Israel should focus less on formal legal regulation, like it does nowadays, and more about educating users about the risks and opportunities they face in the digital age whether when walking in the street or surfing the net. This should be done either by investing directly in the promotion of privacy-orientated technology (for example grants to nonprofit organizations and software developers), or, politically, by initiating and incentivizing awareness and public dissection. A good example for the latter is the "Internet academy", an initiative of the Israeli Internet Association. The Internet Academy provides free lectures, articles and opinion essays on contemporary Internet based dilemmas, among others, privacy issues.

I think we can agree that this is a context, fear, in which efforts by governments to deploy mass surveillance structures have occurred successfully. Surveillance is the core of any organism's immunology. So when we have documented the social and cultural context in which a particular state has adopted the technologies available, can we do more? Is there something at stake beyond the description of one among many simultaneous social developments taking place with remarkable uniformity despite the (not terribly extensive) variation in the rhetoric of state justification, or the relatively lax granting of social and political acceptance?


Webs Webs

r5 - 26 Jun 2015 - 20:26:51 - MarkDrake
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