Freedom of expression from a bird’s eye view: New surveillance tech a threat to privacy - opinion
By Dr. Tal Mimran and Adv. Eden Farber
In recent months, throughout the unending news cycle, one could feel as we are living an extreme version of the movie Groundhog Day. Protests for and against the judicial overhaul, Israeli flags waved, roads blocked, collisions between police officers and protesters, and the sight of water cannons - all these images have become commonplace. Recently, a new player has entered this field - “Ein HaNetz” system (Hawk-eye in Hebrew). This system, already installed along the roads of Israel, appeared at a recent demonstration, and now it might change the rules of the game for demonstrations.
This system is based on a set of cameras, which automatically follows, captures and identifies images of license plates, at all times, through advanced image processing technology. For years, this system has been in use to gather personal information and even to utilize it in legal proceedings. Surprisingly, this was done without legislation regulating the use of such far-reaching technology.
In recent months, though, against the backdrop of an ongoing petition before the Supreme Court of Israel against the use of this system, the Knesset Internal Security Committee promotes a legislative initiative with the aim of creating a general framework for using various types of specialized camera technology by the police (including Ein HaNetz). This is an important step, but nevertheless there are some concerns that should be highlighted.
First, there is the technical risk. Difficulties or failures in the system, or in the manner in which it is being used, could cause misidentification and lead to harassment of innocent civilians. This is not a theoretical risk, as we have seen problems with the deployment of such systems in other contexts (like the United Kingdom, and the United States).
Second, one should also be aware of the risk of biometric information being leaked or stolen. This is a long-standing issue with all biometric databases in Israel, that suffer from problems with their management and security maintenance - a point both the Advisor on Biometric Applications in the National Cyber Authority, and the State Comptroller, have warned about.
Third, and of particular pertinence, there is the matter of privacy. The use of databases containing personal information of countless citizens could lead to widespread surveillance over citizens, for various purposes (some might not even be envisioned at this stage), in a way that infringes on the right to privacy - which is considered as one of the most important human rights that underlies any democratic regime, let alone in Israel.
Finally, it is important to mention the freedom of demonstration, another core right that is part of the liberties that shape the democratic character of Israel. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, this right became a centerpiece of public life in Israel, and now we are faced with the largest protest movement in the history of our young nation. This is an extraordinary political climate, in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis are involved, and the tension level is in a constant rise. The choice to add such an over-reaching technological tool to the mix, might exacerbate the situation even more, and widen the gap of trust between the citizen and the police. More broadly, there can also be a chilling effect on the willingness of people to demonstrate (a concern that also arose in the context of the “tool” of the Shin-Bet during the covid-19 pandemic).
The Israeli legislator is currently in the midst of promoting regulation for the use of specialized camera systems, including “Ein HaNetz”, so it is unclear what is the urgency of using it at demonstrations now. Since this process is already undergoing, it would be useful if the police will declare its intentions to only use this technology in adherence to the proposed law. Specifically, the police should ascertain that its collection of images is done in accordance with the law, and that there are mechanisms are out in place to verify that personal data is not being leaked nor exploited. Otherwise, we might face yet more erosion of some of the core rights of our democracy, and of the public trust.
Dr. Tal Mimran is an international law professor at Zefat Academic College, and a Program Director at Tachlith Institute.
Adv. Eden Farber teaches at Zefat Academic College, and is a researcher at the Tachlith Institute.
ד"ר טל מימרן
הוא ראש תוכנית "אמנה חברתית לעידן הדיגיטלי" במכון תַּכְלִית, חוקר ומרצה בתחומי המשפט הבינלאומי והסייבר.
עו"ד עדן פרבר
היא עורכת דין וחוקרת בתוכנית תוכנית "האמנה החברתית בעידן הדיגיטלי" במכון תַּכְלִית למדיניות ישראלית.