By Shmuel Katz
I have been reading about the big scandal of communications records being monitored by U.S. government agencies for quite some time. Analyzing these records for patterns, they claim to have successfully used this data to thwart terrorist attacks.
Then came this week’s revelation of the PRISM program—the transfer, by court order, of untold amounts of user data from the most popular internet portals. E‑mails, video chats, audio chats, Web searches—the wealth of information that is “sold” (the companies have to present the information via court order, but are paid for providing the service) to the American government on a daily basis is staggering. Or so it would seem.
I think it is safe to assume that many of my readers have been to Israel, at least once. You have gone through the same procedures that I have when checking in at the airport. You get to the front of the security line and answer a barrage of questions about your bags, your trip, anyone who may have given you something to take on the plane, and more. Many people find this process annoying. I do not. I find it reassuring. To be 100% honest about it, one of the reasons that I have no problem with flying on El Al is the fact that I feel much safer on El Al. Their questioning and profiling serves a distinct purpose and leads to concrete results.
U.S. airlines have some form of security check (some better than others) for direct flights to Israel, but whenever I fly direct from the U.S. to Israel on a U.S. airline, I always feel a bit less safe, because the screening seems less rigorous. On connecting flights, I also feel a bit safer, as most European airports carry out similarly rigorous passenger screening, so I know that the Israel-bound leg has really been gone through. Why is this process so effective (most of the time)?
From what I understand, it is not the answers (for the most part). Yes, if you admit to being paid $5,000 to bring a small package in your luggage that you had never seen before that day, you will be pulled aside for further investigation. But it is things like body language, eye contact, and other indicators that the security people focus upon. Why? Because the data tells them that when people act in specific ways, that tends to mean something alarming.
Our family lives in Israel. We are under attack on a daily basis, with many of these attacks hidden from the public eye. A May 25 Ynet article reported that “Israeli critical infrastructures such as electricity, water, and the stock exchange undergo hundreds of cyberattacks every minute.” Imagine what would happen if a major utility were shut down. No water. No electricity. No fuel. This is a reality that we have lived with since we made aliyah.
Yet clearly these attacks fail. While all I have is publicly reported knowledge, it seems obvious to me that the Israeli government has extremely high-tech and sophisticated anti-terrorist computer systems designed not only to thwart active attacks, but also to worm their way through the data and ferret out potential attackers on any level.
Since we moved here, I have taken it as a basic fact of life that all my communications are constantly recorded and monitored in some way, shape, or form. I assume that the Israeli security services have records of every e‑mail I have sent since 2006. They probably have copies of every picture I attached to an e‑mail and a record of every phone call and fax that has been placed from my home and cell phones. Only by mining this data can they identify the real threats to us.
Is it intrusive? Sure. Does it keep me and my family and friends safer? Absolutely, which is priority number one in my opinion.
So I would say the same thing to the person who is entering my e‑mails into the master analyzer that I say to every security agent who semi-apologetically explains why they are asking me so many questions. I say to them, “Please feel free to ask me anything you want. I understand what you are doing and am happy to cooperate and help you keep me and my family safe.” v
Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (www.migdalhatorah.org), a new gap-year yeshiva. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.