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II. Surveillance policy

Communications surveillance

The Secret Monitoring Law of 1979 governs the interception of communications.1 The law prohibits individuals from "listening in" on others' conversation by using a device without a permit or the consent of a party to the conversation.

The law was amended in 1995 following a finding by the State Comptroller that police were abusing wiretap procedures. Although the amendments sought to tighten procedures, they also expanded the Secret Monitoring Law to cover new technologies, such as mobile phones and computer communications, including e-mail. In addition, the amendments increased penalties for illegal taps while allowing interception of privileged communications, such as those with a lawyer or doctor.2

The President of the District Court must authorize police to intercept any form of wire or electronic communication, or plant a microphone for a period up to three months, which can be renewed. The Chief Military Censor may also intercept international conversations to or from Israel for purposes of censorship.3 Intelligence agencies may wiretap people suspected of endangering national security after receiving written permission from the Prime Minister or Defense Minister. Police and other law enforcement agencies must present an annual report to the Knesset’s (the Israeli Parliament's) Constitution, Law and Justice Committee detailing such activities. According to the Israeli government, the number of wiretap orders "has averaged roughly 1,000 to 1,100 annually over the last several years. Roughly half of these wiretap permits are given in connection with drug-related offences."4 Although courts are supposed to weigh privacy concerns against law enforcement needs before authorizing wiretaps, authorization is, in practice, almost automatic upon request. The 2005 police report said that district courts approved 1,089 police requests for wiretaps and rejected six, an approval rate of 99.5 percent.5 In 2006, all but 3 out of 400 wiretaps reviewed in a survey were approved.6

At the beginning of June 2005 the Knesset approved an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law. The amendment authorizes Israel Police to collect DNA samples from suspects taken in for questioning and convicts in custody. The justification for the genetic data bank is to allow police to cross-reference DNA profiles from crime scenes with the data banks of criminals and suspects in order to identify serial offenders in crimes against persons, property or security.7 An individual acquitted of charges will have his or her DNA retained in the data bank for seven years. A convicted offender's DNA will be kept for 20 years. The police have set a target of genetically mapping 20,000 samples annually.8

Legislative and policy responses to terrorism

In March 1998 the Finance Minister granted the Director of the Bureau for Counterterrorism full access to all Israeli taxation authorities' databases. The authorization gave the Bureau access to the financial records of any citizen in Israel, including the status of their bank account "for urgent cases of preventing terrorist acts."9

Israel contracted Electronic Data Systems in 1999 to install a biometrics-based border control system, using hand geometry and facial recognition technology, to monitor the entrance and exit through the Gaza Strip of about 50,000 Palestinians workers.10 Israel also installed a biometrics identification system in Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport. Frequent travelers who submit biographic information and biometric hand-geometry data may use automatic inspection kiosks to go through airport security. Travelers use a credit card for initial identification and then scan their palms into the kiosk to verify identity. The machine prints a receipt that allows the traveler to proceed through security. As of 2006, nearly 300,000 Israeli citizens have enrolled in the biometric identification system.11

In June 2007 Ben Gurion Airport installed electronic devices that allow inspectors to see through travelers’ clothes.12 The technology is used to detect if passengers are smuggling any goods through customs or concealing weapons that could be used for terrorist activity. Although some Israelis have raised privacy concerns, customs officials have responded that a short inspection is more desirable than a full body search.13 It is unclear if the airport security force will be retaining the images in a database.

As part of the disengagement process, the Israeli Defense Ministry announced the creation of a new high-tech border crossing north of the Gaza Strip in January 2005. Security guards monitor individuals by using video surveillance cameras as they pass through "identification stations" where their identities are verified using existing ID cards and biometrics.14 In April 2007, government officials from the Defense Ministry indicated that their biometric equipment must be significantly upgraded to be more effective at preventing terrorist infiltrations.15