One nation, under surveillance: How Israel’s trigger-happy courts went wiretap crazy

One week after Calcalist revealed that NSO’s Pegasus malware had been deployed on the cellphones of Israeli citizens, data obtained by Shomrim shines a light on almost three million classified police files – and reveals the vast extent to which the Israel Police uses wiretaps. In 2020, police filed 3,692 requests for a wiretap. Only 26 were rejected by the court. In addition to wiretapping, when one adds to that the number of search warrants police requests – warrants that allow them to infiltrate suspects’ computers and which are often handed out ex parte by a magistrate’s court – the number leaps to 65,000 requests a year, almost all of which are approved. In the United States and the United Kingdom, those figures are significantly lower. Are the courts overseeing, or are they a rubber stamp? A special Shomrim report.


One week after Calcalist revealed that NSO’s Pegasus malware had been deployed on the cellphones of Israeli citizens, data obtained by Shomrim shines a light on almost three million classified police files – and reveals the vast extent to which the Israel Police uses wiretaps. In 2020, police filed 3,692 requests for a wiretap. Only 26 were rejected by the court. In addition to wiretapping, when one adds to that the number of search warrants police requests – warrants that allow them to infiltrate suspects’ computers and which are often handed out ex parte by a magistrate’s court – the number leaps to 65,000 requests a year, almost all of which are approved. In the United States and the United Kingdom, those figures are significantly lower. Are the courts overseeing, or are they a rubber stamp? A special Shomrim report.


One week after Calcalist revealed that NSO’s Pegasus malware had been deployed on the cellphones of Israeli citizens, data obtained by Shomrim shines a light on almost three million classified police files – and reveals the vast extent to which the Israel Police uses wiretaps. In 2020, police filed 3,692 requests for a wiretap. Only 26 were rejected by the court. In addition to wiretapping, when one adds to that the number of search warrants police requests – warrants that allow them to infiltrate suspects’ computers and which are often handed out ex parte by a magistrate’s court – the number leaps to 65,000 requests a year, almost all of which are approved. In the United States and the United Kingdom, those figures are significantly lower. Are the courts overseeing, or are they a rubber stamp? A special Shomrim report.


Daniel Dolev

A protester holds a banner during a protest attended by about a dozen people outside the offices of the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group in Herzliya, July 25, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Nir Elias

January 27, 2022

Summary

Data obtained by Shomrim reveals that the use of wiretaps by police in Israel is far more widespread than in other countries. Moreover, the data shows that Israeli courts approve almost every request that police submit, raising questions as to whether the police are subject to any real supervision or oversight.

By law, police must report the number of wiretap requests it files every year to the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. Based on these reports, Shomrim was able to ascertain that, in 2020, police filed 3,692 wiretap requests, of which just 26 were rejected. In 2017, the courts rejected just two out of 3,483 such requests. Compared to other countries, this is a huge number, given that Israel’s population is tiny in comparison.

In Australia, for example, which has a population of 25 million, the courts issued 3,677 wiretap warrants in 2020 to every branch of the law-enforcement establishment. In Israel, in the same year, courts issued 3,666 such warrants – in a country with a population of 9 million.

In the United Kingdom, the most recent figures are from 2016, but they also show a huge gulf between British and Israeli courts. In Israel in 2016, the courts approved 3,303 wiretap requests submitted by the police, while in the U.K. – with a population of around 65 million – 3,007 such warrants were deemed adequate. In practice, however, the gap is even wider since the U.K. figures include warrants issued in connection with national security cases. In Israel, the Shin Bet is responsible for investigating possible security threats – and any wiretapping undertaken by that organization is not included in police reports to the Knesset.

In the United States, with a population of 330 million, Federal courts issued 7,210 wiretap warrants in 2019. In Israel, with a population that is just 3 percent of the U.S. population, courts issued 3,816 such warrants in the same year.

Dotan Hammer is a lawyer in Israel and New York who specializes in privacy and cyberlaw. “In the United States, police must present the court with admissible evidence which directly links the suspect to a crime,” he told Shomrim. “The evidence must indicate that there is a more than 50 percent likelihood that a crime has been committed and that a wiretap could secure further evidence against the suspect. With such a high bar, it’s no wonder that the figures in the U.S. are far lower. In other words, in Israel, the courts are trigger-happy about the legal bar and in terms of how judges interpret it.”

Gil Shapira, the attorney in charge of prisoners at the Public Defender Office, adds: “In the U.S., Congress gets an annual report on wiretaps used in criminal investigations. There are details about whether the operation yielded incriminating evidence, including how many people, on average, were recorded in each such operation. In other words, how many suspects’ rights were violated. In contrast, there are no such figures in Israel that allow us to examine the effectiveness of these warrants. We are in the dark.”

Wiretap warrants are considered a sensitive issue, and Israeli law mandates their approval by the president or deputy president of a District Court. This is not the case with search warrants, which can be issued by any Magistrate’s Court judge. But to call them “search warrants” is misleading since they not only include physical searches but searches on suspects’ computers. The data obtained by Shomrim does not differentiate between the two types of searches, for which police file far more requests than they do for wiretaps. Every year, in fact, police ask for around 65,000 search warrants. In 2020, 97.5 percent of them were approved. Between 2017 and 2019, the proportion of approved requests was even greater.

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
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