Likud ballot cams create civilian database at risk of misuse, group warns

The data collected by cameras the Likud party once again intends to use in an election day surveillance operation targeting Arab towns creates a massive database on Israeli citizens that could be exploited for unintended purposes if it were to fall into the wrong hands, the chairwoman of the Israel Internet Association warned on Thursday.

Testifying at a Central Elections Committee hearing, Karine Nahon said that even if the impartial committee, rather than a political party like Likud, were to be the one installing the cameras, “there are still enormous difficulties that arise because it creates a huge pool of information about the people who enter the polling station.

“When you operate a database of the entire State of Israel and this database falls into the wrong hands, it becomes a problem that is far greater than [concerns over] the notion of election purity,” Nahon added. She urged the committee to hold a broader discussion on data collection that such an operation would spark before deciding whether or not to allow the cameras.

Likud legal adviser Avi Halevi responded to the concerns during his testimony, insisting that the party had no intention of using the footage for anything other than proving fraud if it were to take place. He also dismissed arguments that the cameras represented an invasion of privacy, asserting that the devices should make those who see them “feel safer” because they are providing an extra layer of security.

The Israel Internet Association was one of several groups that petitioned the elections committee, urging it to prevent Likud from equipping some 1,200 of its officials stationed in Arab community polling stations with hidden body cameras in September’s vote, as they did during the previous elections in April.

Also addressing the committee were representatives from the Israel Democracy Institute, the Israeli Arab rights group Adalah, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel and the Zazim community action group. That was in addition to representatives from the Attorney General’s Office and the Israel Police who were grilled by the committee’s chairman, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer.

Likud has defended the operation, arguing that it is critical in preventing what it claims to be massive fraud in Arab communities. But critics — citing a Facebook post by one of the operation’s architects, who boasted of the project’s success in dropping Arab voter turnout to below 50 percent — have charged that Likud’s efforts to surveil Arabs is a form of voter intimidation designed to keep the minority from the polls.

In April, Melcer okayed the use of cameras in cases where there was “considerable fear” of voter fraud, but did not explicitly outline what constituted “considerable fear” beyond two examples. The snap ruling came on election day, after Likud poll workers were caught with hidden cameras and were briefly pulled out of ballot stations by police.

Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Attorney General Avichai Mandelbilt submitted a legal opinion for Melcer to weigh in which he argued that the use of cameras in polling stations could amount to a criminal offense if they were to disrupt the voting process.

Representing Mandelblit’s opinion at the hearing, attorney Ron Rosenberg said that there are very strict regulations for what is allowed in a polling station and that these do not cover the cameras. The regulations, he contended, should not be changed by the elections committee, but rather by the Knesset through legislation.

“For us, the placement of cameras in polling station is too significant a change to election regulations, and there currently does not exist an arrangement within the law that allows for such placement at this time,” Rosenberg argued.

Melcer asked Rosenberg to put forth a legal opinion by Monday regarding whether the law would allow for police officers stationed at polling stations to operate their own body cameras when deemed necessary, instead of relying on the Likud polling officials. The elections committee head also ordered a police representative at the hearing to provide a response on whether law enforcement could handle such an alternative.

Current election law requires that officers be stationed outside polling stations, but bars them from entering unless there is suspicion of illicit behavior inside. Melcer asked Rosenberg to determine by Monday if a plain-clothed officer equipped with a camera stationed inside of a polling station would be within the confines of the law.

In an apparent effort to reach a compromise between Likud and the various opponents of its operation, Melcer asked representatives who addressed the hearing whether they would oppose the random installation of cameras at some, but not all, polling stations throughout the country. Both sides hinted that they would be more comfortable with such a proposal. He then asked David Bitan, who is Likud’s representative on the elections committee, if he would agree to having non-politically affiliated clerks be the ones operating cameras in all polling stations, and not just those in Arab communities. The MK said he had no issue with the proposal.

Bitan also pointed out that other parties had the right to operate in the same manner that Likud had during the election. In response, a member of the audience quipped loud enough for many in the room to hear, “How would it have played out if Balad [an Arab party] sent its activists to some settlement with a camera?”

Tehila Altshuler of the IDI argued that despite Likud’s claims, the number of fraudulent votes appears to have only been several thousand. Since the April elections, police have opened investigations into suspected voter fraud at two polling stations: one in the city of Afula and another in the Druze town of Kisra-Sumei. Neither polling station was targeted by Likud’s surveillance program.

In response, Melcer told Altshuler that police are still looking into the hundreds of recordings submitted by Likud, suggesting that additional investigations may be opened.

In an apparent defense of the operation, Melcer went on to point out that the practice was used in India during elections earlier this year.

“India is a developing democracy, and we have a lot to learn from it, but I’m not so sure that we should be looking to it on this particular issue. Perhaps it would be better to look at more developed democracies like Canada, Australia and the UK, where such practices are banned,” responded Altshuler.

Melcer said he intended to hand down a ruling on the cameras some time next week, though no exact date was given.

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