Despite privacy fears, Israel takes step toward surveillance of citizenry to track virus

Knesset subcommittee must give the OK before Shin Bet can begin.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The government approved Sunday the prime minister’s proposal to permit massive cell phone surveillance of Israel’s citizens in order to isolate possible and definite coronavirus victims more quickly in an effort to minimize its contagion.

The argument of public safety carried the day over the concern that peoples’ privacy rights would be violated. However, before the Shin Bet can be tasked with the huge job, the Knesset subcommittee that has oversight over the intelligence service must give its approval as well.

The technology will allow the Shin Bet to track the paths of those infected and possible carriers in the days before they were diagnosed via a log of the cell phone towers accessed by their cellphones as they went from place to place.

This way, the health authorities will not have to rely solely on the victims’ memories of where they were and at what times in order to send into isolation those who were in their immediate vicinity for more than 10 minutes.

The tracking technology will also provide an objective indicator of the infected’s whereabouts should the infected person want to hide his or her itinerary for personal reasons. Until now, this kind of digital monitoring was reserved for the government’s anti-terrorism activities.

Israel’s government wants to use the technology should the number of cases spike. In that event, authorities would not have the time to interview each person. Real-time tracking would  speed up the process and prevent more people than necessary from being forced into isolation.

“The information will be given only to the Health Ministry, to specific people with security clearances, and it will be erased immediately after it is used,” a senior Justice Ministry official told Channel 13 news.

Civil rights and legal experts are concerned that the blanket permission to access such phone data, along with the absence of any court oversight, may outweigh its benefits.

The ability to pinpoint those who have been in contact with possibly ill people “does not justify the severe infringement of the right to privacy. The danger of COVID-19 is not only the virus itself, but the fear that as part of the efforts to overcome the danger, we will also lose our basic values as a free and democratic society,” the Association of Civil Right in Israel said in a statement.

To counter another concern – that the surveillance may be punitive in intent – the Shin Bet said Sunday that “the intention is not to use said capabilities for the enforcement or monitoring of people currently in isolation.”