Privacy Authority: We balanced COVID-19 era, despite setbacks

Until the coronavirus era many thought, “privacy had died. But now it has come back and big time."

SECURITY SURVEILLANCE monitors. Privacy advocates argue that even if the official transfer of data does not identify individuals, anyone who wants to abuse the information to invade an individual’s privacy can do so with ease (photo credit: KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS)
SECURITY SURVEILLANCE monitors. Privacy advocates argue that even if the official transfer of data does not identify individuals, anyone who wants to abuse the information to invade an individual’s privacy can do so with ease
(photo credit: KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS)
Acting Privacy Authority Director Shlomit Wegman-Rotner on Monday sought to portray her unit’s efforts as successful by virtue of its balancing or blocking various coronavirus-era initiatives that would have harmed privacy rights. She acknowledged setbacks in some areas.
Speaking at a Justice Ministry virtual conference, Wegman-Rotner said until the coronavirus era, many thought that “privacy [issues] had died. But now it has come back, and big time. We are seeing important significant conversations in the US and EU” about broader privacy issues.
“Coronavirus has put privacy front and center because it has required unusual emergency measures” that impinged on privacy rights in an unprecedented way, which in turn helped awaken the public from its complacency on the issue, she said.
After a recent notification from WhatsApp that changed certain privacy policies, many ordinary citizens switched to alternate options as proof of heightened awareness, Wegman-Rotner said.
In terms of her authority’s activities, she said it had been highly effective in getting a seat at the table of major government decisions and issued far more rules and guidance directives than in previous years.
However, Wegman-Rotner said privacy-rights activists have cited two glaring examples of the authority’s helplessness, being that it cannot obligate the government to enact its recommendations.
The Privacy Authority was heavily involved in opposing and limiting the harm of Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) surveillance of coronavirus-infected citizens, she said, adding that she would soon issue a decision about the voter-privacy scandal during the March 2020 election cycle when the Likud used the Elector elections data app.
In contrast, privacy activists say the Shin Bet coronavirus surveillance policy is a black stain on its record, as no other country has allowed a domestic spy agency to follow citizens.
Further, even though Wegman-Rotner said the Privacy Authority has pushed for alternatives, activists have said there have been multiple rounds of alternatives dating back to late spring/early summer 2020, and yet even now the Shin Bet surveillance has not been cut back.
Even though she mentioned the High Court of Justice’s possible support for her authority’s position last November, there are indications that the justices will not actually intervene before the end of February, by which time the current coronavirus wave may be declining anyway.
Likewise, Wegman-Rotner’s seeming citation of a decision about the Likud-Elector scandal as a positive sign appeared to ignore criticism that already a full year has passed since the incident, in which some 6.5 million Israelis’ personal data was publicly leaked, and the current election campaign has already been ongoing for more than a month.
In other words, the authority failed to issue any decision or take any enforcement action before the next election season kicked off despite a full year passing.
Acting Justice Minister Benny Gantz also addressed the conference and said: “We are in a technology creation era, which provides major positives but also significant danger to violating privacy. There needs to be many tools for the Privacy Authority so that it can cope with this great challenge. They need effective tools to protect privacy and to go after [violators] where necessary.”
“This is a very sensitive issue, including the Shin Bet and epidemiological probes” of coronavirus trends, he said, and “as someone who is also defense minister, I know how gravely we can harm the privacy of individuals” by labeling something as an “operational” need.
Gantz also advocated limits on what data private companies can gather and store about their customers.
“Groups are holding huge amounts of information about individuals, and we are letting them... then they must also defend” their databases from leaks or hacking, he said.
The conference included appearances from two UAE officials from the Office of Data Protection.
Director Sami Mohammed talked about the attractiveness of the UAE to Israeli business and global markets in general in terms of developed logistics, infrastructure, transportation and a regulatory regime facilitating innovation.
Senior specialist Sayid Madar discussed numerous UAE laws to protect privacy from general criminal laws, telecommunication laws and healthcare data-protection laws.
Madar also introduced the different layers of UAE laws in which some rules apply throughout the country, but many others depend on the specific emirate.