Knesset battle begins over bill to allow searches of computers, cellphones

The proposed legislation comes after 10 years of study of the issue and would be the first change to the law in decades.

Computer (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An important battle has begun in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee over the future of police searches and updated rules for searching computers and cellphones.
The proposed legislation discussed on Monday comes after 10 years of study of the issue and would be the first change to the law in decades.
On one hand, the police and the Justice Ministry have said the law on searching electronic devices has lagged behind technological and social developments in recent years. They say that crimes have gone unsolved because of overly strong privacy protections that are often abused by criminals and terrorists.
In other instances, they said, crimes have gone unsolved for six months because of the delay involved in police getting the right to perform electronic searches.
Ministry lawyer Hayim Vismonsky said there are multiple levels of dilemmas.
Some cases need a streamlined process for getting orders to a defendant to turn over their passwords or methods of encryption, he said. In other cases, there may be no direct physical access to the electronic devices which need to be searched, or there may be other reasons that police need to be able to clandestinely hack into such devices.
“The additional powers that would be granted in the area of computers would be an order to provide the method for breaking an encryption and a password along with penetrating a computer clandestinely,” Vismonsky said. “This is since today in murder and grave sexual crime cases, the authority does not exist, and this cannot continue when the method of communicating has shifted to computers.”
With so much of communications shifting into the electronic sphere, there is now less evidence available non-electronically than there used to be.
At the same time, Vismonsky said, permitting searches in the electronic sphere could cure this issue and lead to new levels of evidence-gathering that never existed before for solving crimes.
However, Deputy National Public Defender Dr. Hagit Lornau said, “Giving over the means of encryption or a password are a substantial harm to the right to freedom from self-incrimination, and it is not clear what is the difference between this and giving over information saved in the brain of a human being.”
While committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky (Bayit Yehudi) favored an updated law that would not tie law enforcement’s hands, other committee members were uncertain about the bill.
Zionist Union MK Revital Swid warned that the law must have limits to prevent over-aggressive searches, such as what police did with former prime minister Ehud Olmert. In that case, police raided the offices of Yediot Aharonot to evaluate potentially classified information from a book Olmert was working on.
Joint List MK Dov Henin also worried about other aspects of the law in terms of its failure to disqualify evidence that police obtain illegally.
United Torah Judaism MK Uri Maklev was concerned that police sometimes search citizens on the road simply because they do not like how a driver speaks to them.
He and others said the change to the law must make a clearer distinction between searches of suspicious persons and searches in which there is no clear suspicious circumstantial evidence.