Rethinking Privacy and Mass Surveillance in the Digital Age

Illustration: Moran Barak

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German-Israeli Tech Policy Dialog: Rethinking Privacy and Mass Surveillance in the Digital Age

On November 25-26, 2020 the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation hosted a high-level expert’s workshop to mark the launch of a new joint program to foster dialog and exchange of knowledge between tech policy experts from Israel and Germany. The event took place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis and the global deployment of geo-tracking surveillance technologies as part of governments’ attempts to curb the spread of the virus. This placed the spotlight on the linkage between surveillance technologies and civil liberties and provided a unique and timely opportunity to take stock and evaluate the implications of mainstreaming dual-use surveillance tech for open societies and democratic values. 

56 experts from academia, civil society, politics and the tech sector from both countries came together to discuss, explore and critically assess the employment of data collection and surveillance technologies. The workshop included three sessions, each devoted to a subtopic of the program and mirroring Israeli and German perspectives: 1) Public Discourse on Surveillance and the Right to Privacy in Israel and Germany; 2) Global Perspectives on the Use of Surveillance Tech in Times of Crisis; 3) Mass Surveillance in Germany and Israel and Recent Developments in Democratic Oversight.

The workshop was opened with a keynote by Professor Jeanette Hofmann, Founding Director at Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) and researcher at the Social Science Center Berlin (WZB), in which she called for an updated understanding of democracy in the digital age. According to Professor Hofmann, the framing of the relationship between society and technology as instrumental is misleading. Instead, she argued, the relationship between technology and society is, above anything else, interactive and mutually constitutive: “We are becoming different people by appropriating and adopting technologies”. Thus, technology should not be seen merely as a tool,  i.e. something of technical nature, which is created by an external and uninvolved agent, which can consequently be evaluated based on its merits and shortcomings for the fulfilment of a specific function. Rather, the adoption of new technologies is a transformative force that persistently and fundamentally alters our society, both practically and normatively. Thanks to technological development we do not only do things differently but also perceive things differently. Thus, technology also affects how we ascribe meaning and value to events around us. According to Hofmann, the rapid (and accelerating) pace of the technological transformation of our societies also accelerates inter-generational differences and conflicts as old spaces of activities are eliminated, while new ones are created. Consequently, a main challenge for a democratic society in the midst of accelerated digital transformation is to keep an eye out for the spaces of possibilities that emerge and disappear, while forging a cohesive, yet flexible vision for one’s society while safeguarding democratic values.

Panel 1: Public Discourse on Surveillance and the Right to Privacy in Israel and Germany

The first panel set forward to discuss the cultural and sociological prisms that frame societal discourses in Germany and Israel regarding surveillance, democracy and privacy and how these discourses shape the conceptualization of policy instruments in both countries. Dr. Dalit Ken-Dror Feldman, a Legal Supervisor and Researcher at Haifa University, kicked off the discussion by introducing her co-authored policy paper that discussed Israeli concerns or lack of awareness regarding voluntary and mandatory contact tracing technologies in the country. Findings show that, both in the Jewish and Arab Israeli communities, people have not established a clear opinion about Shin Bet (GSS) surveillance during the first lockdown (March-May 2020) due to lack of awareness and poor digital literacy. Co-author, Dr. Ronit Purian drew careful attention to the danger of misinterpretation and misuse of the term “indifference” underlying that there is a general lack of awareness of data usage because of poor digital literacy, and a lack of trust in technology and government. Dr. Ken-Dror Feldman concluded by highlighting their policy recommendations on building privacy literacy, increasing public engagement in decision-making, and increasing accessibility to complex data. 

The German perspective on surveillance awareness was presented by Rena Tangens, privacy movement activist and founder of the Big Brother Awards. Tangens provided a historical perspective explaining today’s raised public awareness and presence of advocacy groups related to data protection in Germany. Among other reasons, she explained, this specific historical past has equipped German society with the knowledge and necessary awareness of the authoritarian tendencies of mass surveillance. She called for increased scrutiny of surveillance capitalism and the continuation of tech giants’ indifference to human rights. 

An open discussion followed with Dimitry Epstein, Assistant Professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Chair of Global Internet Governance Academic Network, questioning how much can individuals do about data protection, and whether it may be more efficient to focus privacy literacy efforts on decision-makers. Rena Tangens argued that alternatives and different business models are needed for society’s privacy literacy to be improved. On the other hand, Dr. Dalit Ken-Dror Feldman emphasized that people want to be informed on how data is collected/used. However, she reminded the audience that social groups have different motivations, concerns and needs, therefore a differentiated community-level approach has to be employed – no “one solution fits all” will work. 

The session ended with an outlook to the future, raising the question of whether the level of public awareness to privacy and digital rights in Israel is likely to reach the level of sensitivity present in the current German public discourse. Answers were fairly optimistic, with Rena Tangens pointing to the environmental movement as a good example for stimulation and spread of ideas, and for the creation of new business models. However, she underlined that mere transparency is not enough, an ability to change the system is needed. Dr. Dalit Ken-Dror Feldman responded that strengthening awareness to Contact Tracing Technologies (CTT) and their potential risks to privacy is underway. Yet, an emphasis should be put on a wider public discourse, where concerns can be directly communicated to companies and regulators, and with a wide enough room to contemplate new ways to define “privacy” (the control of data use). Dr. Ronit Purian added that discussions about privacy have to acknowledge the positive effects of data usage as well. She brought up the term “social contract” referring to the relationship between the people to the system (government, companies), which need to be precise in order to provide inclusive, transparent but safe services to all. 

Day 2 began with a video compilation that was produced based on submissions by Heinrich Böll Foundation offices from the US, China, Russia, India, Turkey and the EU (Brussels), describing their experiences with the government led CTTs in their respective countries. The videos from around the world set the tone for the first panel discussion of the day which sought to uncover the proliferation of data collection and surveillance that was employed in both Israel and Germany from a technical perspective. Each policy paper that was presented touched on the technological and sociological aspects of what made for successful or unsuccessful experiences with the contact-tracing technologies deployed in each country. The authors and participants then discussed the necessary changes to how mass surveillance is thought of and addressed at the level of policy and regulation.

Panel 2 – Global Perspectives on the Use of Surveillance and the Right to Privacy

Ann Cathrin Riedel, Chairwoman of the LOAD eV, the Association for Liberal Network Policy, opened the second day by presenting the debate in Germany around the voluntary open-source Corona Warn-App, which according to her could represent a successful case study for a balanced combination of innovation and data protection. Whether the app is considered a real success remains a question of perspectives, but debates around the subject are seen as fruitful and represent proof of democratic exchanges, according to Ms. Riedel. 

Dr. Eran Toch from the Tel Aviv University brought to the discussion his comparative overview of the two Contact Tracing Technologies (CTTs) that were launched in Israel: the voluntary open-source CTT, called Ha’Magen (The Shield), and the involuntary tracking of Israeli citizens by the General Secret Service (GSS) via the “Tool”, giving a deeper insight into the technical and privacy aspects of the two technologies. The CTTs were launched by the Israeli government in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. Findings reveal the different impacts that both technologies have on the user sphere and privacy, concluding that reduced privacy creates negative dynamics between systems and users, contributing to a general minimized “trust” in technology. In other words, lack of clear instructions or public discourses around CTTs leads people to experience a “privacy shock”, to an overall mistrust towards both models.

The open discussion that followed began with the question of privacy literacy, Dr. Toch and Ms. Riedel acknowledged that awareness is continuously increasing due to the ongoing efforts of civil society actors, and to the increasing public objections to the prevailing surveillance. Ann Cathrin Riedel added that aside from privacy literacy, data literacy is just as essential and must be improved (referring to Germany’s tendency to increased data protection and its drawback of slowing down digitalization i.e. in healthcare). Furthermore, both agreed that technology alone will not curb the spread of the virus. Regulations must be respected and only with rebuilt trust into technology will positive change occur. On that note, moderator Polina Garaev asked how technology could increase trust: Eran Toch suggested that the positive aspects of the technology should not be overlooked since they are able to influence and strengthen trust in democracy and institutions. Ann Cathrin Riedel added that the combination of innovation, digitalization and privacy is possible (i.e.: Google and Apple allow CTT anonymously). Furthermore, voluntary based open-source systems that offer better accountability, user control, and transparency have an important role in gaining back trust in technology. Reintroducing discussions on open-source systems to the public can help to shift peoples’ trust in the technology partly thanks to its transparency.

Panel 3: Mass Surveillance in Germany and Israel and Recent Developments in Democratic Oversight

The final presentation of the 2-day workshop focused on institutional oversight mechanisms that tackle the growing complexity and diversity of data collection and surveillance technologies, especially in times of crisis such as this one. Following in the format of the previous panel discussions, each presentation explored the findings from the authors’ respective policy papers that showcased democratic oversight mechanisms within each country.

Amir Cahane, Research Fellow at Federman Cyber Security Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, presented his investigation of the Israeli oversight processes related to the CTT app deployed by the Israel Security Agency (ISA). Cahane’s policy paper explored oversight mechanisms to build trust in the ISA and other intelligence agencies through increased accountability and transparency. The subject’s particularity is that Israel is the first democracy to introduce domestic security service to surveil its citizens. However, he underlined, Shin Bet used “the Tool” for mass surveillance over the course of about 20 years, only there was a very low public awareness of it prior to the Coronavirus. His findings revealed that in order to achieve trust in ISA and other intelligence agencies, there is a need for transparent oversight, more involved participation of civil society (as other actors are likely to be more entrenched in pro-national security positions) and a fully independent oversight body for mass surveillance (with sufficient expertise). Cahane emphasized that in its’ current state, the existing authority for ensuring the privacy of citizens does not have the necessary power to enforce its mandate.

The German perspective presented by Dr. Thorsten Wetzling, stressed that digital communication and surveillance not only became prevalent but also continuously develop at an unprecedented speed. In the case of Germany, Dr. Wetzling insisted on the persistence of civil society and an independent judiciary, where he argued that the executive branch exploited accountability gaps and resisted democratic control for far too long. He proceeded to make the case for international cooperation due to security threats that are outgrowing national borders. Such a condition poses heavyweights and duty on governments to build proper checks and balances to protect human rights and civic space. Contrasting with the Israeli publication for this segment that focused solely on Israel, Dr. Wetzling highlighted that conflicts of interest between executives, intelligence services, tech companies, and civil society, render debates over surveillance slow and complicated, underlying that surveillance is no longer a subject of national debate, rather there is a strong need for international cooperation and communication. 

The workshop provided valuable insights into the current state of debates and questions on the intersection of new surveillance technologies and democratic norms in both countries and helped in generating perspectives on the way forward. The event marked the beginning of the German-Israeli Tech Policy Dialog program, which sets out to continue tackling the emerging challenges to liberal democracies in the face of the accelerated digital transformation of our societies. We look forward to continuing the debate in future meetings and to further deepen collaborative exchanges between the policy communities in both countries.


Speakers of the workshop:

  • Oz Aruch, Program Director, Heinrich Böll Stiftung
  • Amir Cahane, Research Fellow at Federman Cyber Security Center at Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Adi Cohen, Co-Founder and Program Director, Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI)
  • Dr. Dalit Ken-Dror Feldman, Legal Supervisor at Law and Technology Clinic at University of Haifa
  • Giorgio Franceschini, Head of Foreign and Security Policy Division, Heinrich Böll Stiftung
  • Polina Garaev, Programs Manager, Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) 
  • Dr. Jeanette Hofmann, Professor of Internet Politics at Freie Universitat Berlin; Founding Director at Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG); Researcher at Social Science Center Berlin (WZB)
  • Dr. Ronit Purian, Lead Data Scientist at SYN-RG.AI
  • Ann Cathrin Riedel, Chairwoman at Load E.V.
  • Rena Tangens, privacy movement activist and founder of German Big Brother Award
  • Dr. Eran Toch, co-Director of iWit Lab at Tel Aviv University,
  • Dr. Thorsten Wetzling, Project Director at Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, SNV 
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