Can Israel Police find the right balance between security and privacy? - analysis

People who are worried about police hacking their cell phones have every right to be concerned.

NSO Group logo is shown on a smartphone which is placed on a keyboard in this illustration taken May 4, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION)
NSO Group logo is shown on a smartphone which is placed on a keyboard in this illustration taken May 4, 2022.

There are many arguments regarding the police cell phone hacking and spying controversy. In that light, and adding in national security overtones of anything connected to NSO Group’s hacking technologies, perhaps the only clear thing out of Monday’s Knesset hearing on the issue was how impossibly difficult it is to strike the right balance between national security and privacy.

The second clear thing was how even more difficult it is to get anywhere near that balance in today’s hyper-polarized and often toxic politics.

People concerned about police hacking their cell phones have every right to be concerned.

In today’s day and age, cell phones often contain intimate data and visual details about a person’s life, relationships and health status – far beyond what police, or even intelligence agencies, could once learn by putting a wiretap on someone’s telephone landline.

There is also a higher likelihood of that data being abused. This is because the tools seizing the data were, until recently, only used by elite powerhouse intelligence agencies in grand geopolitical battles.

Computer hacking (illustrative) (credit: REUTERS)Computer hacking (illustrative) (credit: REUTERS)

Nowadays, data is seized instantly, instead of over a longer period of time, and is also easily shareable. It is harder to carve out small pieces of relevant data for specific criminal suspicions from the massive volume collected, than to do it from the much smaller amount of data in a transcript from a wiretap, for example.

There are so many stories from recent years of hostile foreign intelligence services, private sector cyber attack firms and domestic government agencies abusing cell phone hacking based on personal whims or to illegally oppress political opponents.

But those who insist on the vital value of cell phone hacking tools could easily point to cases where intelligence agencies or law enforcement failed to prevent terrorists from pulling off ghastly attacks because they lacked access to a cell phone. Or where those same terrorists or other criminals got off for crimes that it was clear they committed, but there was no way to access the critical evidence on their phone.

Moreover, in an age when both local terror cells and criminals in general have gotten more sophisticated in covering their tracks, law enforcement emphasizes that it has no choice but to deepen its technological investigatory tools to keep up.

Toss into this mix the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Constitution Law and Justice Committee chairman Simcha Rothman are looking for any excuse they can to tear into the Attorney-General’s Office and state prosecution.

Netanyahu was, in many ways, the political father of NSO.

It was by his initiative and with his permission that NSO sold its technology to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others to further normalization – despite those countries not being traditional democracies.

Netanyahu also supported the Israeli defense establishment alliance with NSO, including ordering the Defense Ministry to help quash a case against its export license at the Tel Aviv District Court.

He only became anti-NSO and anti-law enforcement spying when the opportunity came to criticize the police’s hacking of cell phones of state witnesses against him in his corruption trial.

Most probably, a record will never be found of Rothman complaining about Israel or other countries using cell phone hacking technologies to catch Palestinian, Hezbollah, ISIS and Iranian terrorists. He also probably did not complain when these technologies were used against left-wing human rights activists.

Concerns about the Supreme Court's role in permitting surveillance

But he rightly flags the record of Israeli courts rejecting only six out of around 2,700 requests for warrants to hack as a record which creates suspicions of the judiciary being a rubber stamp. This helps him attack the judiciary in his effort to pass judicial reforms.

Likud MK Moshe Saada went into politics seeking to even the score with his former bosses in the Attorney-General’s Office, attacking them for having “whitewashed” the government probe into possible abuse of the cell phone hacking technology by the Police.

The fighting between him and Deputy Attorney-General Amit Merari was as personally volatile as it gets between government officials, who normally would calmly debate the intricate issues of wonkish policy discussions.

Israel is not unique in this regard.

The US has shown a complete inability to find bipartisan solutions to balancing national security and privacy.

But if Israel cannot find a better, calmer and more nuanced way to dialogue about the issue, everyone will suffer.