Good news for Palestinians: According to several August news reports, a 3G mobile network might be finally coming their way. After years of struggling with 2G speeds, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are reported to have come to an agreement that would result in Israel releasing the frequencies required for 3G and possibly 4G services.
As documented by a new report on the country's telecommunications industry by the Palestinian think tank, Al Shabaka, that speed upgrade has been a long time coming. The Oslo Accords, the agreement struck between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1995, settled that Palestinians should have their own telephone, radio and TV networks, but handed over the details of that to a joint technical committee. As detailed in the Accords, Israel would control all allocation of frequencies and determine where Palestinians could build new infrastructure. Israel consistently foot-dragged since then, delaying Palestinian telcos the ability to upgrade their networks, or share the radio spectrum with Israeli services and companies.
The result is an infamously slow phone network, roundly blamed on the political conflict between the two countries. Palestinians say that they're the only country without access to 3G, and when President Obama visited the state in 2013, he was greeted by activists' placards telling him to leave his smartphone at home. But Palestine's data lines are not only slower and more poorly supported than those of its neighbors; they're also the worst-case scenario for digital privacy in a centralized and state-managed telecommunications infrastructure.
Access to the Internet shouldn't be a bargaining chip in geopolitical battles—and neither should privacy. As the Palestinian government and telcos negotiate for their new 3G network, they need to actively address the security of their users' communications.
We know that telcos can end up compromising their users' privacy by making secret deals with the government. In the United States, AT&T and others agreed for years to unlawfully hand over data to the government after pressure was applied. Other countries seek and obtain undisclosed access to telecommunications cables. In Palestine, the telecommunication companies are just as dependent on the government for the existence and economic success of their network. But in this case, the government in question is Israel, a state with a different electorate, radically different political motives, and with both the motive and capability to peer into the contents of the users of those companies' communication lines.
Palestinian vs. Israeli Telcos in the Territories
Palestine and Israel’s ICT infrastructure are deeply intertwined. All international traffic must be routed through Israeli providers, with Palestinian companies paying connection and termination fees to them. Most infrastructure is only permitted within the small area of the West Bank that is theoretically (but not practically) under full Palestinian Authority control and, under the terms of the Oslo Accords, is additionally restricted from Israeli-defined buffer zones and along the separation wall.
Palestinian Internet traffic thus relies on a fragmented, dependent infrastructure. Palestinian phone calls and data traffic go through Israeli companies, onto Israeli soil, and with Israeli security and law enforcement access. Israel probably has a better insight into the movements of Palestinians than their own government does. Asserting the privacy of their communications would be extremely difficult for Palestinians, who have minimal access or redress under Israel's judicial and administrative system.
The problem becomes more acute in the mobile market. According to 2013 data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), nearly 74% of Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza have a mobile cellular subscription, a rate on par with Palestine’s neighbors. Like the rest of Palestine’s infrastructure, mobile telephony is controlled by Israel—including spectrum allocation.
In 1999, Israel licensed access to 4.8 MHz in the 900 MHz band to Jawwal, a subsidiary of Palestine Telecom (PalTel), the national telecom provider in the West Bank. According to Al Shabaka’s report, Jawwal still retains the same access, but for more than 2.5 million subscribers compared to only 120,000 in 1999. Palestine’s secondary provider, Wataniya—which only operates in the West Bank—was also granted non-exclusive 2G frequencies in 2007.
Meanwhile, Israeli mobile operators have had access to 3G frequencies for several years now. In January 2015, the government of Israel awarded six companies 4G mobile broadband frequencies in the 1800 MHz band, at the same time as it was continuing to argue over sharing 3G bands with the Palestinian authorities. Israeli companies, with faster connectivity, operate cell towers in settlements throughout the West Bank. And these operators sell SIM cards in the West Bank without paying licensing fees or taxes to the local authorities, as required by the Oslo Accords.
This domination of spectrum and the market for Palestinians allows Israel a greater level of control over Gaza’s telecommunications, as evidenced by the calls and text messages sent by the Israeli military to Gaza’s citizens during its 2014 assault on the territory.
The State of Phone Surveillance in the Territories
Given that Palestine's telcos are locked down to basic 2G, Israel may also have interception access even to those who use only Palestine's own telecommunications companies. Earlier generations of tech are more vulnerable to being tapped by parties with no access to the underlying infrastructure. The encryption used to protect over-the-air transmissions by current 2G Palestinian mobiles has long been broken. That means that it's possible to listen into and decode 2G phone signals with the right receiving equipment and software—technology that is developed and sold by Israeli companies. Civilian researchers believe that 3G and 4G systems are safer from passive surveillance. Mobile phone spying technology (like Stingrays or other IMSI catchers) work by forcing cellphones into their more vulnerable 2G mode, but that requires transmitters that actively communicate with the cellphone, which can be detected or blocked.
Is this why Israel has been so determined to stop Palestinians from upgrading their phones? With the current status quo, Israeli authorities can surveil and eavesdrop (or potentially mass send everyone their own text messages) on traffic coming over Israeli companies' networks. And if they feel the need to see what's going on in Palestinian networks, they can passively monitor the 2G systems without detection.
To continue that level of surveillance on an upgraded 3G network run by Palestinian companies, Israel will have to either ensure that it can continue to tap into the network backbone those companies use, or use more detectable active surveillance technology like IMSI catchers. Active surveillance would be detectable: it would also be a violation of the Oslo accords, which declare that both sides “shall refrain from any action that interferes with the communication and broadcasting systems and infrastructures of the other side.”
Back room deals for phone back doors?
Palestinian authorities have many reasons for re-establishing control of their telecommunication network back from the Israelis. For one, it was promised to them in the Oslo Accords. For another, the lack of a decent infrastructure remains a profound limitation the opportunity for digital development and innovation in the Territories. It is also losing them a considerable amount of money in tax revenue.
In contravention of the accords, Israeli companies selling digital services in Palestine pay no taxes. According to Al Shabaka’s report, it is estimated that Palestinian operators lose $80 to $100 million in annual revenue as a result of the lack of 3G services. Similarly, a 2008 World Bank report cites the loss in revenue to the Palestinian Authority as a result of unlicensed Israeli operators to be $60 million [PDF]. Wataniya, one of the private Palestinian mobile operators, paid the Palestinian Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology $140M for a 3G contract that it still cannot deploy.
But these supposedly independent Palestine-based telecommunication companies are heavily dependent on Israel's co-operation to operate at all. Their traffic needs to pass through Israeli territory to reach Gaza and the West Bank or beyond. (All of Gaza’s access points are located within Israel, meaning that all mobile and landline traffic from Gaza must pass through Israel [PDF].)
In an already heavily controlled environment, with money on the line, Palestinian telcos may agree to leave those links unencrypted or otherwise accessible. Even the Palestinian government may see limited harm in conceding continuing Israeli data access in return for greater revenue and their own political control of the networks. It's notable that in the current round of agreements, neither the Palestinian nor Israeli representatives were willing to discuss the compromises they have struck to move the 3G agreement forward. That's not a result that should reassure anyone.
But for Palestinians, that means that a long-awaited increase in speed won't give them any more security from monitoring—surveillance by any of the many powers, Israeli, Palestine or others that seek to control their fundamental right to communicate. They will finally enter the future of faster connectivity promised to them by the Oslo accords, but remain vulnerable to surveillance by two governments.
What might improve communications privacy for Palestine? Upgrading to 3G will certainly help: their current national networks are slow and simple to intercept, while faster networks operated by Israeli companies are vulnerable to Israeli surveillance. But 3G doesn't guarantee privacy.
The current negotiators need to push for commitments that protect civilian privacy: strong and actively enforced legal safeguards for Palestinian authority access to communications, and secured and encrypted connections when infrastructure passes out of Palestinian control.
Palestine needs more direct links to the rest of the world. Both the Palestinian government and Israel have security needs, but neither should sacrifice the economic benefits of a fast and well-connected data network to those concerns.
Palestinians could also work to build networks that work for them, rather than the negotiated settlement of current Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Al Shabaka's report suggests that local municipalities could work to provide Wi-Fi links in their own areas, and link those with microwave and fiber to the end-points of their choice. That's the kind of flexible, decentralized and user-driven network that could take issues of fast, universal access and privacy out of the hands of warring politicians and foreign companies, and into the hands of those most affected by Palestine's current slow and surveillable mobile market: its citizens.