Facebook: Israeli security forces and the NYPD's new battleground

Facebook: Israeli security forces and the NYPD's new battleground
Comment: Like the NYPD in New York, Israeli authorities are using draconian laws and newly formed cyber units to monitor individuals engaged in 'dangerous' or 'subversive' behaviour writes Nick Rodrigo
6 min read
08 Nov, 2016
Israel perceives Facebook as a battleground for combatting would be attackers [Getty]

Authoritarian regimes use Facebook as a tool for identifying, monitoring and seizing individuals who are engaging in unsolicited political activism. For many across the Middle East and in authoritarian states in central Asia, a Facebook post can lead to incarceration, assault or disappearance.

Israel and the US both have a dynamic social media scene, both countries allow for vociferous criticism on social media - yet this hinges on who is voicing these criticisms.

For the largest and most militarised police force in the US - the NYPD - as well as for Israeli authorities, social media, and specifically Facebook has been a tool to control and monitor black and brown communities in a similar fashion to their authoritarian counterparts.

In October 2012, the then NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly introduced a new initiative called "Operation Crew Cut", aimed at targeting gang activity through the surveillance of suspects using Facebook. Many of those observed were under 18, some as young as 12, and most from black and Latino neighbourhoods.

The operation included the creation of undercover Facebook profiles in order to spy on statuses as well as the reading of private messages.

Some of the largest gang raids in New York's history were conducted off the back of Crew Cut information. In June 2014 the Grant and Manhattanville high-rise developments in West Harlem were raided resulting in the arrests of 40 young men and boys on a 103-person indictment.

In April of this year 700 officers carried out an a raid in East Chester in the Bronx, arresting 120 suspected gang members in the largest bust of its kind in New York's history.

The vast majority of those arrested were charged with one of the top offenses in the indictment – conspiracy in the first degree. This allows the NYPD to arrest suspects on suspected links to criminal behaviour, and operation Crew Cut provides officers with the ability to collate evidence from a broader source leading to murky and inconsistent charges, especially against young people.

Facebook posts have landed children in administrative detention

The main issue is the unstructured status of young people within the gang networks, many young people were only affiliated, with little criminal activity. The inordinate amount of data collated by Crew Cut means that many defendants have been awaiting trial on Rikers Island for months – several have engaged in plea bargains despite the spurious evidence.

The tactic of monitoring the social media of black and brown minors for what is essentially legal entrapment is spreading across the US, and it is not just being implemented to prevent gang activity. Numerous individuals have been charged with terrorism offences for advocating violence against the police.

Legal activists have noted that initiatives such as Crew Cut are aimed at making people worried of openly criticising the police. Also, that they display the police's desire to uphold law and order, trumping its obligation to protect the First Amendment rights.

In the occupied Palestinian territories, similar tactics are being deployed to surveil and monitor young people. The so-called "Knife Intifada" which began in September 2015 and continued throughout 2016, had a myriad of factors driving it.

The difference in Israel, is the panoply of different laws being applied to implement this regime of control and supervision on Palestinians

Despite this, the vast majority of the analysis blamed social media campaigns directed by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP. The authorities responded to this myopia with extrajudicial executions, mass arrests and harassment, much of the latter two centring on evidence garnered from Facebook.

In the last three months of 2015, 130 Palestinians were arrested on the grounds of inciting violence on Facebook, while in March 2016 alone, 148 Palestinians were arrested for the same reason.

Defence for Children International – Palestine, found that Facebook posts have landed children in administrative detention, some of whom have been placed under this order for merely sharing images of rifles.

Placing children under administrative detention by way of Facebook posts allows the Israeli authorities to hold children in prisons for an extended period of time while they build a case, or the child engages in a plea – in a similar vain to the NYPD.

The negative impact of this on the child's ability to achieve their full potential has been well-documented. Palestinians in Israel are not immune to imprisonment due to their Facebook. 

Well-established Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour has been in Israeli custody for over a year. Tatour was arrested from her village of al-Reineh near Nazareth for posting a poem protesting the killing of Muhammad Abu KhdeirHadeel al-Shalamon, and members of the Dawabshe family in Duma. Although the poem calls for resistance there is no reference to violence.

Like in New York, the Israeli authorities are using draconian laws and newly formed cyber units to control monitor and seize individuals engaged in behaviour perceived as dangerous or subversive.

The difference in Israel is the panoply of different laws being applied to implement this regime of control and supervision on Palestinians. For those under Israeli civil law, there is the "Incitement to Violence or Terror".

As gang activity and resistance to police brutality moves online, so too have the NYPD

This measure is designed to prohibit speech by Israeli citizens that could result in an attack, however it has been applied disproportionately to Israeli Palestinians and residents of East Jerusalem. In the West Bank, fully under Israeli military law, there is an even broader prohibition against incitement.

In September, Israel managed a breakthrough with Facebook. A high level meeting between Israeli interior minister Gilad Erdan and justice minister Ayelet Shaked with top Facebook officials took place to discuss tackling incitement on Facebook in Israel.

Concrete moves have been made to introduce legislative measures to force social media to reign in content. The most ironic aspect of this, is that Shaked shot to international infamy for likening Palestinian children to snakes in a Facebook post during Israel's 2014 assault on Gaza.

As gang activity and resistance to police brutality moves online, so too have the NYPD and other police departments – a process which threatens to criminalise individuals not guilty of anything but inconsequential online relationships.

Israel too perceives Facebook as a battleground for combatting would be attackers, however through this process has swept up individuals only articulating resistance to what is an illegal occupation.

The US and Israel's monitoring of Facebook should not come as a surprise. The mantle of vibrant liberal democracy they both champion is but a smokescreen for their natural inclinations. For the US this is the tipping of poor blacks and Latinos into the prison system, for Israel this is the fracturing of Palestinian communities so they can no longer maintain resistance to its colonial policies.

Nick Rodrigo is a journalist and PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Centre. He has worked in policy analysis on the Middle East in South Africa, as well as in Palestinian and Iranian human rights organisations in Palestine and the UK.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.