Survey: 52% of Palestinians believe their personal data isn’t protected adequately

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Mariam Barghouti

Mondoweiss  /  July 21, 2022

More than half of Palestinians believe their personal data isn’t safe — and that Palestinian and Israeli authorities, in collaboration with Big Tech, are to blame.

A new survey has found that 52 percent of Palestinians believe that their privacy and personal data lacks protection, and that Palestinian and Israeli authorities, along with telecommunication companies are some of the primary actors when it comes to violations of data and protection rights. 

The survey, conducted by the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media-7amleh, measured the extent to which Palestinians have knowledge and understanding regarding issues related to digital rights, including privacy and right to information. 

7amleh surveyed 509 Palestinians from across the West Bank and Gaza, and found that 32 percent of participants expressed that they had experienced privacy breaches or their personal data was used without their knowledge and consent. 

The survey also found that 69 percent supported a Palestinian legislation to protect privacy and personal data, including electronic data.

In its investigation, the group found that there are serious deficiencies in public knowledge of their rights, and lack of access to the right to privacy in the digital sphere.

“This survey demonstrates the urgent need for the Palestinian Authority to adopt comprehensive privacy and data protection legislation in the oPt. This must be in line with international law principles and human rights standards, which can protect all citizens and ensure accountability per the principle of the rule of law, including over the official, civil and private sectors,” 7amleh’s director Nadim Nashif said in a statement. 

“It further reveals the need for private companies, especially telecom service providers, to develop binding privacy policies, for all their parties, and in both their internal and external affairs, that guarantee the implementation of laws and human rights standards related to privacy.”

Palestine in the digital world

While the focus of analysis on digital rights is often fixated on aspects of censorship and surveillance, the recent 7amleh survey focused on the perceptions and attitudes of Palestinians themselves towards the concept of privacy and their access to data rights.

After the brutal crackdown on Palestinians in the Spring and Summer of 2021, 7amleh launched the first independent “online open source to monitor, document and follow up on the digital rights violations of Palestinians” with the name 7or an Arabic term which means “to be free.” 

At the time of intensified and increased assaults and aggressions by Israeli settlers, military, and police across historic Palestine, the complicity witnessed by Big Tech companies such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were also found to practice censorship and silencing Palestinian testimonies. 

Survey results showcased that there are layers to the violation of digital rights for Palestinians. Not only are Palestinians facing censorship and a cyber-crackdown on information sharing and production, but Palestinian society is simultaneously being denied access to information on their digital rights. 

Digital rights and the Unity Intifada

The infringement on Palestinian digital rights is not a recent development. Palestinian legal analysts and social media experts have been warning for years about the increased use of social communication platforms by Israel and the PA as a mechanism of surveilling Palestinians, and incriminating them. 

The systemic censorship and clamping on Palestinian accounts in the spring and summer of 2021 amid a global pandemic may have made the extent of these violations more vivid.

For authoritarian regimes like the PA and colonial regimes like Israel, surveillance, infringement on digital rights, and the weaponizing of digital social spaces has become a priori in clamping down on civil dissidents and political mobilizers. 

The PA went as far to ratify a cybercrimes law by presidential decree in 2018, using it primarily against politically vocal dissidents or youth mobilizers. It allowed the PA to detain and sentence Palestinian activists through judicial means. 

The cyber-crimes law continues to be unjustly employed against Palestinians, and “has become a convenient tool to silence critical voices and prosecute activists and journalists,” Marwa Fatafta explained to Mondoweiss.

Indeed, Nizar Banat, assassinated by Palestinian security forces for his exposure of PA corruption via his social media accounts was also detained several times by the PA under the cybercrimes legislation, prior to his killing. 

Nashif told Mondoweiss that it’s important to revise and assess “how much such actors are getting access to the information of people without any kind of safeguards.”

“We do not investigate very much the privacy aspect that is coming from internal actors such as the different authorities and ministries and people who are working there,” he said. 

The PA has borrowed its digital practice from Israel, which has a trail of violating digital spaces of Palestinians, as well as suspected allies. “When we come to Palestine, the biggest offender here is Israel, and they don’t even collect data in normal ways, they collect data in the most dehumanizing and coercive ways possible,” digital rights expert Marwa Fatafta told Mondoweiss

Israel not only violates data, but also has used Palestinian social media posts as proof of crime, even if they were merely expressing opinions on local developments. 

One example, Palestinian human rights defender Salah Hammouri, a Jerusalemite and French citizen, currently being held in Israeli administrative detention– a practice illegal under international law. Hammouri was being surveilled by Israeli tech NSO group, which the Palestinian Digital Rights Coalition filed a lawsuit against in April of this year.

The entanglement of digital spheres with human rights is not limited to what happens in cyberspace. The repercussions are also felt on the dynamics unfolding in Palestine and are reflective of dis-regulated relationships. 

Legislation, transparency, and regulation

In August of 2021, the digital rights organization, Access Now, conducted a study into internet service providers in Palestine. The study found that “All ISPs in Palestine fail to meet the standards for privacy and data protection exposing personal data to misuse.” 

“In a context of occupation… in not putting protection mechanisms you are making it much easier for the occupation to take [your data],” Nashif told Mondoweiss

Alarmingly, almost a third of participants reported that they are not aware of how digital policy regulation can actually keep them protected. 

This distrust in upholding rights through policy may also be due to the systemic violations that are faced by Palestinians daily under occupation. Beyond this, however, the PA, under de facto Israeli governance, has no leverage in providing protection against Israeli violations, which continue to persist unabated.

“The current legal and infrastructural architecture has allowed the mass surveillance of Palestinian communities and the exploitation of their personal data for decades without accountability,” Fatafta noted. 

“Knowing” vs. “accessing” rights

The knowledge and understanding of communities on their digital rights is pivotal in achieving justice and ensuring accurate representation and engagement between civil society and policy-makers or influencers.  “We produce every day a mass digital footprint, so the idea is that you have rights, the right to consent, the right to remedy and rectify incorrect information,” Fatafta explained. 

However, despite 32 percent having knowledge that either privacy has been breached, or their data used without their consent and knowledge, more than half of participants do not know which bodies are responsible for complaints collection or where to pursue accountability measures.

In this way, as the survey results show, Palestinian data and privacy is threatened by three actors, the authorities, telecommunications companies, and Palestinian communities in their engagement with one another.

“It puts at risk all of society and that’s why this is really something troubling, that these companies and these authorities  are not taking the measures that they should do in such an era that we are living,” Nashif pointed out.

In understanding our continued reliance on technological modes of communication, it continues to become a priority in ensuring that digital spaces do not replicate the repressions seen in our physical spaces.  

“All our life and data are online and somebody needs to protect that,” emphasized Nashif.

Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss