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Exclusive: The IDF is monitoring what Israeli citizens say on Facebook

Did you post the word ‘demonstration’ in Hebrew on Facebook? The army is keeping an eye on you. Did you use the word ‘Al Quds’ in Arabic in a WhatsApp conversation? You may have just been flagged as a terrorist. How the IDF contracts private tech companies to monitor Israeli citizens on social media.

By John Brown* and Noam Rotem / Local Call

Illustrative photo of digital surveillance. (Shutterstock.com)

Illustrative photo of digital surveillance. (Shutterstock.com)

Several years ago, a group of uniformed Israeli military officers walked into a conference room of an Israeli company that tracks and monitors discussions on the Internet for commercial purposes. The company looks at what social media users are saying about a certain brand or what they think about new products, and more.

A former employee of the company, who spoke to +972’s Hebrew sister-site, Local Call, describes how the military officers didn’t really care about those things. They got right to the point: “We need you to use your systems to monitor trigger words,” they said.

The employee, who we have agreed not to name, told us about the company’s involvement in security-based projects: “They work with the technology branch of Israeli intelligence… they provide information in Arabic on protests or conversations that include trigger words. The same goes for Hebrew, of course, including information on geographical location of the users, but I am not sure just how far it extends.”

At that same meeting the officers inquired over whether data could be purchased from companies that deal in keystroke logging, in order to tap into all the information typed into tablets or smartphones.

“There are many companies that gather open data from the web,” says the employee. “Take, for example, a company like GetTaxi. The company can ask for conversations about [its own brand], about taxis, public transportation, or any form of transportation, or anything that has been written about it in Hebrew. Technically, there is access to open data in any language of your choosing. It’s just a matter of price.”

But the Israeli army officers were interested in different words, like “boycott” or “demonstration.”

The data they requested included the identities of the authors on social media, his/her profile, the content of what they wrote, as well as their physical location. They requested the raw data without any analysis. Similar conversations took place in at least five other Israeli tech companies.

From ‘suspects’ to criminals

The IDF contracted the services of Israeli tech companies to monitor both open and private posts by Israeli citizens on social media. Army Intelligence filed a request to gather data on Israelis who write about protests in Hebrew on Facebook, WhatsApp, private chats and other networks, as well as data on users who write in Arabic and use words like “the Zionist state” and “Al-Quds” (Jerusalem in Arabic).

The testimonies we collected paint a worrying picture of the level and scope of monitoring and tracking that the security services use against both Jews and Arabs.

IDF soldiers participate in a cyber defense course. (IDF Spokesperson)

IDF soldiers participate in a cyber defense course. (IDF Spokesperson)

It must be stated that these companies are not tracking individuals suspected of any crimes, but rather in the widespread gathering of all public data available in Israel, which isn’t limited solely to posts published on social media platforms.

At its most basic level, the monitoring softwar locates keywords such as “protest” in Hebrew or “shaheed” (martyr) in Arabic. Therefore, any person who writes any of these words is supposed to receive special attention from the company’s information system.

At the highest level of monitoring, the company can recognize groups of people who are talking about a specific subject that interests the security services, allowing them to check semantic similarities between posts on social networks and posts by “flagged” individuals. The circle of “flagged” individuals grows into potential suspects based entirely on their writing style. The monitoring begins through the program’s algorithm before is it taken over by humans at a later stage.

Fictitious profiles

According to the employee, several of the monitoring companies create fictitious profiles as a tracking technique. These profiles connect with specific individuals that the system wants to monitor. This is how the companies “circumvent” privacy mechanisms, so that even when a user marks a specific piece of content as private (intended for his/her friends alone), the companies still have access to it and are able to pass it on to the security services.

After receiving numerous testimonies from employees, we contacted Bazila, an Israeli tech company that takes pride in having a “national security” specialist on staff. The specialist functions as a liaison with government organizations dealing with security in Israel and abroad, and assists in developing the interface of Bazila’s security system.

Following conversations with a number of employees in the company, we were referred to Guy Mor, the vice president of resource development and one of the founders of the company. Mor confirmed that the company works in tandem with the IDF, and that they monitor Hebrew-language users, and specifically conversations regarding boycotts of Israel.

IntuView, another Israeli company, uses a similar practice. The company’s product analyzes the way social media users feel regarding different bodies and organizations, including the state itself. Shlomi Amber, a senior executive at the company who is responsible for technological development, confirmed that the company works with the IDF and other bodies in the security services. IntuView also provides tracking and monitoring for Hebrew-language users.

Among the other companies who work in the field are Taldor, which markets its product, “Kapow” — which analyzes blogs, forums, Twitter and Facebook — in Israel.

First comes the monitoring, then comes prison

It is important to remember that a reality in which the army monitors citizens is not a nightmare that has only recently come true. It has been going on for years, day in and day out, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 2014, 43 veterans from the elite Unit 8200 signed a protest letter decrying the signals intelligence unit’s abusive gathering of Palestinians’ private information, including on demonstrations, sexual orientation, financial status and anything else that would aid them in blackmailing or pressuring the population to collaborate. The goal is, in the army’s words, to “sear the consciousness” of the subjects of Israel’s military regime.

In 2011, the IDF established an “[anti] de-legitimization branch” as part of Unit 8200, whose stated goal is to gather intelligence on foreign organizations that oppose Israeli policies. The branch focuses on those who criticize Israel, and specifically BDS and flotilla activists, as well as bodies that are at the forefront of legal struggles targeting Israel, such as the International Criminal Court. After Operative Protective Edge in 2014, the unit mainly gathered intelligence that would aid Israel in its struggle against UN reports on war crimes that allegedly took place during the war. This is a clear case of the IDF’s intervention in political, and policy based issues.

The decision to use the army to intervene in inherently political issues is concerning. The IDF takes pride in the fact that it monitors foreigners but the evidence shows that the army also tracks Israeli citizens. Should the army involve itself in domestic issues of opposition to government policies? How about when that opposition is directed at Israel’s military regime in the occupied territories?

But Military Intelligence isn’t the only body involved in gathering data on Israelis through the web. According to information passed on to Local Call, it turns out that uniformed officers serving in the IDF’s research division and the Defense Ministry’s R&D units are acting as liaisons to Israeli tech monitoring companies. In addition, soldiers belonging to units dealing with teleprocessing and communications are also in contact with private tech companies.

The IDF’s cooperation with civilian groups does not end with these companies. Even the cyber department at Ben-Gurion University has contracts worth tens of millions of shekels with the army, and cooperates with the army in establishing lesson plans for the department, such that they will suit the needs of the security services. In a presentation by one of the faculty members on monitoring web data in Arabic, one can see that a study done by the department classified the words “shaheed” and “The Zionist,” among others, as words that ascribe terrorism to the writer.

Slide in a presentation by a researcher at Ben-Gurion University.

Slide in a presentation by a researcher at Ben-Gurion University.

From the information we have seen, it appears that the monitoring of Jewish Israelis in Hebrew primarily centers on political activity. In contrast, most of the information gathered about Israeli citizens in Arabic is put to use by law enforcement — leading to dozens of arrests and indictments. Authorities use the information even more widely and freely when it comes to Palestinian residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

According to data, information in Hebrew is focused on things like incitement, while in Arabic the monitoring extends far beyond, to words and phrases like “shaheed” and “Al-Quds,” which are far more common and widely used in both public and private political discourse. That difference could potentially explain the disparity between the number of indictments filed against Arabs and Jews. In the criminal trials that have taken place in such cases, the security forces have not been asked to explain to the court how they collected the incriminating information, nor what lies behind their selective prosecutions.

We asked the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit whether the army is also monitoring Jewish Israelis who incite to violence against Arabs, but the spokesperson chose not to respond to the question.

One Bedouin activist’s case serves as a good example of how the state makes use of its Internet monitoring of political activism. Roughly a month ago, Israeli Police summoned the activist for interrogation. Officers presented him with printouts of entire conversations from WhatsApp, accusing him of vandalizing a nature site by painting a Palestinian flag in a village inside present-day Israel, which was destroyed in 1948. From the WhatsApp messages, police learned that the activist had made plans to visit the site, but despite that being the only information available to them, it was enough to consider him a suspect and summon him for questioning.

One might be tempted to say it is reasonable to violate someone’s privacy if they are suspected of a crime, and of course we are not condoning the alleged vandalization of a nature site. But if such prosecutions were not selective, then police should also be violating the privacy of half of the Jewish Israeli population on Independence Day in order to investigate similar crimes. We can presume that didn’t happen.

When you cast such a wide net, one which collects information that only slightly deviates from the mainstream, we must presume that information has been gathered on any one of us who has ever said or done anything on the Internet, and that that information is now sitting on an IDF server somewhere. Even if that information was eventually passed on to the Shin Bet or the police for the sake of law enforcement, the fact that information was gathered on civilians by a massive organization like the IDF, which isn’t really subject to any supervision, exposes us all to constant monitoring.

Even if nobody has made use of that information, it is important to remember that it is being gathered. For Palestinians in the West Bank it is illegal to demonstrate against the military regime, and information on such demonstrations enables authorities to act against protesters. It would also not be outrageous to imagine that if and when the boycott picks up steam, such online monitoring might be used against activists under Israel’s boycott law.

It is relatively common to imagine online social networks as a city square, an open and egalitarian space where anybody can stand up and exercise his or her freedom of expression. But with the information exposed here, perhaps a better analogy would be that social networks are more like a closed room subject to constant monitoring, in which every word uttered is collected and, when expedient, used against you. Anybody who was at all outraged by the use of “Raccoon” military surveillance vehicles against social protests in Tel Aviv, should prepare themselves for a reality in which they are monitored by the army every day, even inside their homes.

This is bad enough when it comes to public content — where the parameters for constant monitoring are determined according to political needs when it comes to Jews, and far looser parameters when it comes to non-Jews. It gets even worse when it comes to things we believe are private, like emails and private messaging apps.

Also outrageous is that the body responsible for this monitoring is the IDF; never mind the fact that in accordance with Israeli law it passes on the information to the Shin Bet and Israel Police for purposes of law enforcement. Just last week, Haaretz journalist Uri Blau revealed that the army recently attempted to purchase spyware software.

Meretz MK demands answers

In response to this article, MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) submitted a parliamentary question to the Defense Ministry, demanding answers about selective enforcement targeting Arabs on social media.

We presented the results of this investigation to the IDF Spokesperson a week ago and requested a series of clarifications and answers, among other things, about the nature and cost of contracting with private companies, whether any court approved the monitoring of private information, and on the specific flagged words and terms. This is the IDF’s full response:

The intelligence division carries out a variety of collection activities against bodies and individuals that are not citizens of the state of Israel in accordance with Israeli law, in accordance with intelligence questions that require answers. In certain circumstances the intelligence division uses civilian technology, as is the norm among intelligence agencies worldwide.

*John Brown is the pseudonym of an Israeli academic and blogger. Noam Rotem is an Israeli activist, high-tech executive and author of the blog o139.org, subtitled “Godwin doesn’t live here any more.” This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Henry Lowi

      We have nothing to hide. We will organize demonstrations against the oppressive policies of the Zionist state whenever and wherever we can, including in Jerusalem. The anti-democratic Israeli legislation criminalizing boycott activities will not deter us, as we have not been deterred by the regime’s racist violence. We are fighting for a democratic Palestine, to which the refugees may return, and in which Jews and Arabs (and others) may live in peace and security.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        Henry, who is we? Do you have a rat in your pocket?

        If you are fighting for a democratic Palestine you might first try bringing democracy to Hamastan and Fatahland, both are governed by a Kleptocracy which denies the most basic rights to its citizens. Peace and Security in Palestine? Get serious. Hamas and the PA have been busy beating up journalists and torturing each others detainees. Three Palestinians died in custody last week and no one said boo. See

        http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/6110/palestinian-prisoners-death

        As far as refugees go, please be advised that Jewish revenants have been returning to Judea and Samaria and increasing by natural growth. So all is well on this front. You might also note that Israel offered to bring the displaced Palestinians in Syria to the West Bank, but Abbas said it was better that they die in Syria than give up their alleged wrong of return to Israel. So thousands of Palestinians have been killed who could have been saved. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Syria are displaced, yet Palestinians will not take in their brothers and sisters like Israel did with Jewish refugees from Arab countries after 1948.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Henry Lowi has written an interesting essay on an oft-insisted-upon theme hereabouts: the demand that the Palestinians “recognize the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.”

        http://www.nion.ca/public-forum-lowi.htm

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          Question: why is it unacceptable to publish a critique of Henri Lowi’s article which Benny posted?!

          I have attempted to post it twice already yet it has been suppressed.

          There were some strong words in my post but nothing rude.

          Why are the powers to be here so scared of alternative opinions suddenly? They claim that free speech for them is their human right. And till recently, they seemed to practice that belief because they DID publish posts from people like me too even though I am clearly opposing their dogma. But suddenly they seem to be averse to publishing opinions which are critical of the critics (THEM!!!).

          What happened? Ya guys don’t want to hear any more? Had enough? Or what?

          Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Three times now…3 times my post was suppressed.

            I got the message. No more critiques of the critics is allowed in this site.

            Ok, then, talk amongst yourselves. If I am not allowed to have my say, then I am outa here.

            So long. Enjoy your incestuous conversation and don’t forget to congratulate yourselves…

            …oh and no more crying please if out in the real world, you get your own medicine back. Ok dudes?

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Part 1 of 3….

            No wonder Benny is so confused. He keeps on devouring anti Israel articles and never looks at pro Israeli points of view. Now let me refute his stupid article point by point…

            HENRI LOWI (HL):”Let me start with an example: In Canada, the aboriginal First Nations have never been asked to recognize the legitimacy of the Government of Canada, or the “right to exist” of the Canadian state,”

            Why?

            Firstly because they are so powerless that they do not represent a threat to the existing order. Are the Palestinian Arabs powerless? Not quite. They are supported by 400 million Arabs and another 800 million Muslims.

            But there is even a more important reason. The comparison is totally false. Because in the context of the I-P conflict, the Jewish people are the descendants of the first nation, while the Arabs of Palestine are the descendants of the Arab invaders.

            HL:”If the goal is a negotiated peace agreement, or treaty, there is no need for recognition of “the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state”.

            Yes there IS. The Arabs have been trying to prevent the existence of the Jewish state for 100 years. Not making them renounce that goal would be the same kind of foolishness as if the allies would have let Germany hold onto Nazi ideology at the end of WW2.

            HL:”If the goal is to sabotage the possibility of a negotiated agreement, this demand has been placed front and center.”

            Really? Why exactly is it so difficult for the Palestinian Arabs to recognize the Jewish state? Could it be because they still reject the idea of a Jewish state?

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Part 2 of 3….

            HL:”Has anyone ever asked the Catholics of Ireland to recognize the right of Ulster, or Northern Ireland, to exist as a “Protestant state”?”

            This is nothing to do with Catholics and protestants. They have their history and we have ours.

            HL:”Would we recognize the right of any state to exist as a “Hindu state”? As a “Muslim state”?”

            Why not? In fact many Muslim states already exist and are recognized.

            HL:”Just to pose the question is to expose its nature.”

            Just to pose this question is to introduce a red herring and to demostrate the hypocrisy of the writer.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Part 3 of 3…

            HL:”But, maybe we are not talking about “Jewish state” as a state affiliated to the Jewish religion.”

            Yea, now he is talking. The Zionists have always envisaged a Jewish state. And to them (us), being Jewish was an ethnicity not necessarily religion. Although religion is also part of the ethnicity.

            HL:”Maybe we are talking about a state that is defined by the dominant ethnicity. In that case, the position does not get any better.”

            Yes it does.

            HL:”Michael Neumann said it well in his article on the “Case against Zionism” (Counterpunch):

            “When a state is described in relation to the territory it controls, its ethnic character is open. The French state is not necessarily a state for some ethnic group called Frenchmen”

            Try telling that to the French people. Let’s see how they would react to the idea that the plan is to make the ethnic French people a minority in their own state. There is already a backlash against foreign immigration in France and elsewhere.

            And yes, no matter which way the author is trying to spin it, France is recognized as the state of the ethnic French people (heck, the name says it all).

            HL:”just as the Belgian or Yugoslav or Jamaican state weren’t states for ethnic groups of that name.”

            Ditto as per my above comments. Wanna know what happens when ideologues insist in trying to make historic enemies live in one state because they think that the result will be Kumbaya? LOOK AT WHAT HAPPENED TO YUGOSLAVIA!!!

            Moreover, not what happened in Yugoslavia which no longer exists. The minority ethnic groups broke it up because they each wanted their own ethnic state. Go figure. Why aren’t they being criticized by the author?!

            HL:”But a Catholic state would be a state run by Catholics;”

            Yea, so what? That does not mean that they would automatically mistreat non catholics.

            HL:”a black state would be a state run by blacks;”

            Yea, so what? That does not mean that they would automatically mistreat non blacks.

            HL:”a heterosexual state would be run by heterosexuals.”

            Yea, so what? That does not mean that they would automatically mistreat non heterosexuals.

            HL:“A Jewish state would, therefore, be a state run by and for Jews. In such a state, Jews would be sovereign. The state would be run in their interests.”
            So far – Michael Neumann.”

            What? One state in this world run by Jews? What a calamity (sarcasm)…

            Where is the uproar about 22 Arab states run by Arabs?

            HL:”Let us recall that Theodor Herzl’s book was called “Der Judenstaat” or the “State of the Jews”. That might have sounded not so terrible at the end of the 19th century.

            But since then, we have had our fill of states whose raison d’etre is to preserve ethnic superiority”

            Excuse me? Who is talking about ethnic superiority?

            England is a majority Anglo Saxon country whose official religion is Anglican, yet minority rights are respected in England.

            Is the author saying that people whose ethnicity is Jewish are incapable of respecting minority rights in a peaceful environment (as in no war)?

            If he is saying that, then he is guilty of an ethnic slur against the Jewish people and he is THE RACIST!

            HL:”and domination. One does not have to refer to the late unlamented “Aryan state”. Within recent memory,”

            Wow!!! Just Wow!!!

            The idea of the Jewish state was born because of religious and ethnic persecution, of the Jewish people in Europe and in Arab lands, for 2000 years. We wanted one place on this earth where we won’t be persecuted for being Jewish. But we are the racists for reacting like that?

            Bizarre!!! Just bizarre!!!

            I’ll stop there because the article just gets stupider and stupider. I won’t waste any more of my time on it. I’ll let our BUGS BENNY to be impressed by it…

            Reply to Comment
    2. Ginger Eis

      Peremptory Obligations Of State

      Noam Rothem: “The IDF is monitoring what Israeli citizens say on Facebook”

      And that’s somehow new and news? What a BREAKING NEWS!

      And you actually think it’s only Facebook?

      And you indeed have no idea that this site is, among many others, on the radar, not for the writing skills and intellectual élan of its columnists, which are at best mediocre, ill-informed and heavily misguided, but rather for the raw, crude and brutish hate some foreign resident-commenters of this site spew in its comment section against (Israeli) Jews, including, among others, the ones promoting BDS on this site (in violation of Israeli law), posting information and announcements on planned boycotts and BDS-activities, calling for the murder of innocent Israelis and wiping out the entire Jewish Community in e.g. Hebron? Pls. do not tell me that you have no idea of what I am talking about, because I documented some of the heinous posts in question.

      The Primary Obligation of the Jewish State (and indeed any democratic government) is the protection of the (a) Life, (b) Liberty and (c) Property of her citizens. The Jewish State will do her best to fulfill that Sacred Obligation. Red Gal-On and the rest of her Comrades in Meretz can pound as much sand as they want, but Israel will keep her Eyes and Ears wild OPEN and round the clock to defend her citizens. We will see what we need to see and hear what we need to hear – regardless of whose ox is gored! That – Mr. Noam Rottem and “John Brown”, is the Primary Obligation Of Democratic Governments.

      Gee, both of you are not actually among the brightest bulbs in the chandelier, no?

      Reply to Comment
      • “We will see what we need to see and hear what we need to hear…”

        True of schizophrenics as well. But, then, John Nash was a schizophrenic.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Yeah I’ve gone deep underground Eis cuz I’ve heard Bibi is so mad at the bugs bunny cartoons making fun of him that he’s got 8200 screening for every use of “wascally wabbit!” I guess my goose I mean rabbit is cooked!

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          “Yeah I’ve gone deep underground Eis cuz I’ve heard Bibi is so mad at the bugs bunny cartoons”

          Oh dear, Benny, or should I say Bunny? …is rabbiting on about Bugs Bunny again.

          I said it before, he is a middle aged drop out who grew up on a diet of Buggs Bunny and Seinfeld. He devours anti Israel publications and posts useless posts. He is obsessive and pathetic.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Bugs Benny! Genius!

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Why thank you, Benny. I am glad to see you being able to be grateful.

            Reply to Comment
        • Tojo

          Ben, you are so stupid and annoying. Is there any person on the planet who can stand being arround you? I imagine you being pilloried and chased around with pitchforks and torches like Frankenstein’s monster in the novel.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            That’s interesting. I don’t imagine you at all.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Average American

      Gustav: Recognize The Jewish State? Tell me, where is The Jewish State? Where are its borders? They are undefined. Where is The Land Of Israel that the Jewish State claims as its own, and where are its borders? They are undefined. Where is this unknown thing that you want people to recognize?

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        You are a funny man average. Now let me ask you back, where is the Palestinian Arab state? They were offered it in 1948 but they said Nyet! They said, Arab state from the river to the sea, Hamas still says it.

        Where is the Jewish state? Ehud Barak tried to define it but your uncle Arafat responded with an intifada. Ehud Olmert tried to define it but your uncle Abbas ignored the offer.

        And you are trying to accuse us of being greedy? How about your Palestinian Arabs? They are not greedy? Pull the other one you remorseless propagandist!

        Reply to Comment
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