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The Israeli General Security Service Shin Bet admitted that it spied on journalists through a database collected from mobile phone companies. It also used this database in investigations into criminal incidents, not only in security investigations. This came in the Public Prosecution’s response to a petition submitted by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) to the High Court.

Data on mobile phones is stored in a database. The information in it includes the places where a journalist has been, the conversations they had, their duration and other information. Through the petition, ACRI demanded the removal of a clause from the law regulating Shin Bet’s operations that forces mobile phone companies in Israel to provide the agency with information regarding every call or message that took place on the phone.

The Shin Bet law was enacted in 2002, claiming that it regulates its activities, but these activities are mostly secret and are not subject to public oversight, according to Haaretz newspaper’s reports on Friday. According to the law, the Shin Bet’s use of this information is permitted after approval by the Shin Bet chief, who must inform the prime minister and the attorney general of the spying operations through the mobile phone database once every three months and inform the Shin Bet committee in Knesset once a year.

The ACRI petition stated that there are constitutional flaws in the aforementioned clause due to the lack of clarity regarding targeting privacy and that the power this clause gives Shin Bet goes beyond what is required for the needs of state security.

The petition stressed that the Shin Bet law lacks a clear mechanism to protect those who require professional secrecy, especially journalists, because the decisions of the Shin Bet chief and the prime minister under this clause are not subject to judicial oversight and because there are no adequate monitoring systems in the Shin Bet law.

The High Court looked into the petition by a panel of three judges on 25 October and decided at the end of the session that the prosecution would inform the court within 90 days about submitting a memorandum to amend the Shin Bet law. It is expected to be published soon so the public can give their opinion. Then the court will decide on the continuation of considering the petition.

On 20 October, Shin Bet and the government asked the High Court, through the Public Prosecution Office, to reject the petition. In its response, the prosecution claimed that the mobile communications database is: “Collecting communication data from telecommunication companies to gather intelligence is vital to the organisation’s operations and has already provided critical assistance in thwarting terror attacks and saving lives.”

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“The service foils hundreds of attacks a year, and the data collected significantly contributes to this. Limiting the agency’s authority will critically harm security and the agency’s ability to fulfil its role,” it added.

The prosecution shared that Shin Bet does not use cell phone data against individuals with professional immunity, such as Knesset members, ministers, deputy ministers, journalists, lawyers, psychiatrists and religious leaders – except in cases that require it, claiming that they are related to state security.

The prosecution pointed out that the database was used five or six times a year, on average, during the last ten years and that journalists were a minority in these cases.

Gil Gan-Mor, a lawyer and head of the civil rights division at the ACRI, told Haaretz: “Even if it’s two journalists a year monitored through this database, this amounts to 20 over the last decade and 40 in the lifetime of the database.”

He added: “Investigating cell phone communications can reveal with horrifying ease sources of particular news items that have embarrassed the government, even if published previously and even if the journalist and source did not talk by phone and only met while carrying their phones.”