Story highlights

Israeli attorney general says travelers' e-mail can be searched in exceptional cases

"No one is forced to open their accounts to anyone they don't want to," official says

Israeli Attorney General's Office says it's fighting threat of using foreign citizens for terrorism

The practice violates privacy rights, attorney for civil rights group says

Jerusalem CNN  — 

If you’re a tourist arriving in Israel, you might be asked to give authorities a look at your personal e-mail, in addition to your travel documents.

Israel’s attorney general said Wednesday that Shin Bet, the country’s internal security force, can search a foreign traveler’s e-mail, but only in exceptional cases in which “relevant suspicious signs” are observed. Israel says the practice is another way to fight terrorism.

The threat of using foreign citizens for terrorist purposes is a growing trend, the Israeli Attorney General’s Office said in a written response to an inquiry filed by an Israeli human rights group.

Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told CNN: “Security may under the law demand this, but no one is forced to open their accounts to anyone they don’t want to.”

However, the attorney general’s decision said that if the traveler declined to give consent, it would be made clear that a refusal would be taken into consideration, along with other relevant factors, in deciding whether to allow entry into Israel.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel received the information from the Attorney General’s Office after it asked whether Israel’s security forces could demand travelers’ e-mail and social media passwords. The association said the question was a reaction to media reports last year that several Palestinian-American travelers were asked to open their e-mail accounts and show airport security before being denied entry. The group received an answer this week.

“To be clear, this is a process whose execution is conditioned on the receipt of the passenger’s agreement, and that the latter is not required to give the investigating representative his password, as your letter suggests, but rather that the passenger himself executes entry to the e-mail account … ” The Attorney General’s Office wrote.

Lila Margalit, an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights, said the practice is a violation of privacy rights:

“A tourist who has just spent thousands of dollars to travel to Israel, only to be interrogated at the airport by Shin Bet agents and told to grant access to their e-mail account, is in no position to give free and informed consent,” she said Wednesday. “Such ‘consent,’ given under threat of deportation, cannot serve as a basis for such a drastic invasion of privacy. In today’s world, access to a person’s e-mail account is akin to access to their innermost thoughts and personal lives. 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.”

Security checks at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport are known around the world as some of the most exhaustive and thorough, and this is one more layer that travelers should be aware of.

Jerusalem Travel Agency owner Margo Tarazi said she had heard of the practice but her clients had not experienced it:

“None of our clients have faced this problem yet. They come with official groups with their vouchers, and no one asks them about these things. However, if we do receive any groups with some people who are originally from Iran or from Syria, they are detained for several hours and asked to sign a paper not to cause any harm to the state of Israel during their visit.”

Critics of the practice worry it will be used to target Arabs or Muslims who communicate with Palestinian activists or organizations.