Israel airport security demands access to tourists’ private email accounts
Several U.S. tourists report being asked by airport security personnel for access to their personal email accounts; Israel’s Shin Bet security service says it acted within the law.
Israel’s Shin Bet security service has been demanding access to personal email accounts of visiting tourists with Arab names, according to the testimony of three U.S. citizens who were interrogated at Ben Gurion Airport and subsequently refused entry into Israel in May.
Najwa Doughman, a 25-year-old architect from New York, landed in Israel on May 26. Doughman, who had already visited Israel three times in the past, planned to tour the country for ten days with a friend, Sasha Al-Sarabi, 24, who was visiting Israel for the first time. Both women were born to Palestinian families who were expelled from Haifa and Akko in 1948.
Around 5 P.M., approximately an hour after landing, Doughman’s interrogation began. She was questioned by a female security guard who did not divulge her name or position. Another female questioner was also present.
The first part of the interrogation began with questions like: “Do you feel more Arab or more American?” (to which the interrogator supplied her own answer: “Surely you must feel a little more Arab.”), “Will you go to Al-Aqsa?” and “Why are you coming now for the third time? You can go to Venezuela, to Mexico, to Canada. It is much closer to New York, and much less expensive!”
When Doughman responded by asking “Don’t you have other tourists who come here more than once?” her interrogator responded, “I’m asking the questions here.”
Then, according to Doughman, her interrogator said, “Okay, we are going to do something very interesting now!” As Doughman describes it, the harsh stare on the security woman’s face gave way to a slight smirk. She typed www.gmail.com on her computer, turned the keyboard toward Doughman and demanded that she log in to her personal email account.
Doughman said she that, while she was taken aback, it did not occur to her to refuse, despite the fact that this was clearly not a reasonable request.
According to a piece Doughman wrote several days later on the blog Mondoweiss, the security woman read through every email with certain key words (including “Palestine,” “Israel,” “West Bank” and “International Solidarity Movement”), reading some lines out loud as well as some chats between her and her friend regarding their upcoming trip. Then she recorded a number of her contacts’ names, emails and telephone numbers.
After some five hours of questioning, Doughman and her friend were forced to wait another three hours, after which they were told that they would be refused entry into Israel. Accompanied by a heavy cadre of security people, they were led to another part of Ben Gurion Airport, where they were photographed and their bags were searched meticulously down to the smallest objects.
Their computers and iPads were passed, twice, through an explosives-detection machine. Then they were given body searches behind a curtain.
When a metal detector beeped while being passed over a button on Doughman’s jeans, she was asked to take her pants off. She broke down in tears and refused, to which the security team responded by threatening to remove her pants by force. Instead, she was given a pair of shorts from her own suitcase and told to put them on instead of her jeans.
The two spent the night in a detention facility at Ben Gurion Airport and were flown out via France, some 14 hours after landing in Israel.
On May 21, another U.S. citizen, Sandra Tamari, a 42-year-old Quaker from St. Louis, was also asked to give airport security people access to her email before being denied entry into Israel. Her interrogation lasted eight hours. When she refused to open her email account, she was told that she was probably hiding something.
Tamari, also of Palestinian descent, has been active in campaigns for a boycott and sanctions against Israel. Her description of events was also published on Mondoweiss.
A third American citizen, who preferred that her name not be published, was also refused entry in May after refusing to allow airport security personnel to access her personal email account. She was also told that she must have something to hide.
A similar case was reported in October of 2011.
Ronit Eckstein, a spokesperson for the Israel Airports Authority, told Haaretz that the Interior Ministry is responsible for the entry of tourists to Israel, and that the security officials who interrogated the women were not employed by the Airports Authority or by Ben Gurion Airport.
The Interior Ministry said in response that the security checks are the responsibility of the Shin Bet security service.
The Shin Bet confirmed that Doughman and Tamari had been questioned by Shin Bet agents after landing in Israel, adding that the actions taken by the agents during questioning were within the organization’s authority according to Israeli law.
Israel’s Response …
Israel Rebuffs Criticism Over E-Mail Checks at Airport
Civil RIghts Groups Blast ‘Drastic Invasion of Privacy’
Israel’s top legal adviser on Wednesday rebuffed criticism of authorities for asking travellers entering the Jewish state to show border officers their emails, saying the checks affecting only certain foreign nationals were lawful.
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein’s written legal opinion was given in response to a query by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) which first questioned the practice last year.
On Wednesday the group called the checks a “drastic invasion of privacy … not befitting a democracy”.
Israel’s security agencies have been keen to stop pro-Palestinian activists they suspect may be planning anti-Israel activities in the occupied West Bank or inside the Jewish state.
Weinstein said officers of the internal undercover security service, the Shin Bet, needed “to establish or dispel suspicion against prospective foreign nationals wishing to enter Israel who show initial suspicious signs”.
He said officers were not allowed to access email accounts without the consent of the owner and added that travellers could refuse to cooperate. This did not necessarily mean they would automatically be barred entry.
“The traveller is not asked to reveal passwords … but opens the account on their own. The traveller has a full right to refuse the search and will not be forced to comply, although this will be taken into account when the authorities decide whether to allow the person to enter Israel,” he said.
Marc Grey, an ACRI attorney, said the issue was not so much the matter of revealing the email account’s password but the actual perusal of the private content in the mailbox.
“Passwords are not the issue, email accounts are about as private as it gets,” Grey told Reuters.
He said he did not know how many travellers to Israel had been asked to open their email accounts.
Lila Margalit, another ACRI attorney, said travellers were not on an equal footing when they faced questioning.
“A tourist … to Israel (who is) interrogated at the airport by Shin Bet agents and told to grant access to their email account, is in no position to give free and informed consent. Such ‘consent’, given under threat of deportation, cannot serve as a basis for such a drastic invasion of privacy,” she wrote in an email distributed on Wednesday.
“Allowing security agents to take such invasive measures at their own discretion and on the basis of such flimsy ‘consent’ is not befitting of a democracy.”