Security needs vs. democratic rights

Only through lively public debate and careful deliberation is it possible to strike the right balance.

June 10, 2013 22:55
3 minute read.
IDF soldiers engaged in cyber security

IDF soldiers engaged in cyber security 370. (photo credit:

With each technological breakthrough comes the potential to gain access to realms of life previously thought private. And with terrorism, particularly of the political Islamist variety – still a real threat to the welfare and security of peaceful societies – there is a temptation, even a moral obligation, to take advantage of these technologies in the name of self-defense.

But how can governments use technological advances to protect democratic societies from terrorism without in the process undermining the very democracy which they set out to protect? In the wake of leaks provided by Edward Snowden, 29 – who worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) – privacy and the limits of domestic surveillance have become a widely discussed issue in the US in the past week.

In Israel too the same honest and open discourse should be conducted on how best to balance democratic values such as liberty and freedom from government intrusion with the need to protect ourselves from those who would, if given the opportunity, take advantage of the freedoms they enjoy to undermine open society.

Unlike the US, where the discussion is taking place on the backdrop of leaks provided by a man with questionable motives – who might have severely undermined American security by revealing details about the PRISM domestic surveillance program – here in Israel we have the opportunity to initiate our own self-examination and encourage our lawmakers to provide closer oversight of our security apparatus without compromising the necessary secrecy surrounding our counter-terrorism efforts.

One issue that has come up in the US is debate over the use of “metadata.” Democrat Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, argued that the US government’s collection of thousands of phone records of Americans was legitimate and not a violation of privacy because the information obtained did not disclose the content of the phone conversations. Only records of who called whom, when and from where, were provided by a Verizon subsidiary.

Admittedly, much can be gleaned about a person from this metadata. For instance, where your cellphone is located at night might reveal a romantic tie. And knowing who was called and from where as well the order of the calls, can help analysts piece together important and intrusive information.

In Israel, meanwhile, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved on Sunday the Fight Against Terrorism bill, slated to replace the “national state of emergency,” applied since the British Mandate. Unfortunately, the bill, which will now go to the Knesset plenum for a vote, did not generate a major public debate. Media coverage focused almost exclusively on the part of the bill that seeks to define as “terrorism” Jewish vigilante actions against Arabs (“price tag”).

Yet there are other aspects of the bill which should also worry Israelis who value basic democratic rights. For instance, the bill, if passed, would anchor in law administrative arrests, house arrests or other restrictions on movement that can be imposed without a trial. The bill also permits the use of classified, undisclosed information as evidence against defendants and expands the definition of “terror organization” to include, among others, those responsible for “price tag” actions.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has called the bill “draconian,” because it gives broad powers to the executive branch of the government to pursue “terrorists” without a trial.

The Israel Democracy Institute has also voiced criticism of the bill, particularly with regard to the broad definition of what the legislation considers to be a “terror organization.”

At the very least, a more serious discussion should be conducted before the Fight Against Terrorism bill is made into law, particularly in the wake of recent revelations regarding the NSA’s counter-terrorism activities.

Around the world democracies are struggling to defend themselves against terrorism without at the same time undermining the very freedoms which they value and which they are willing to fight to protect. Only through lively public debate and careful deliberation is it possible to strike the right balance. The present controversy over the NSA provides a perfect opportunity to reevaluate our own counter-terrorism policies and laws.

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