Tracking the trackers: Israel sets up committee to review use of surveillance software

Following criticisms of government’s use of invasive anti-terror surveillance tools to track Israel’s citizens in the fight against coronavirus, Netanyahu convenes review committee.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set up a ministerial committee Sunday to check on how the country’s national security agency is using top-secret anti-terror tools to fight the spread of the coronavirus by tracking the movement of civilians.

The cabinet level committee will check the results and see how effective the surveillance software has been since it was approved for use on March 16.

The committee was appointed to examine the effectiveness of the approved mechanism under which the National Security Agency (NSA) is monitoring all civilian cell phones to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The NSA normally uses the tools to spy on potential terrorists allowing them deep access to any electronic device being used.

Ministers are expected to review the NSA’s activities in a matter of days and then submit their recommendations to the prime minister. Aside from a brief announcement last week that the tools helped locate 400 Israelis infected with coronavirus, little other information has been made public.

“We don’t really know what the prime minister means when he talks about the use of technological means in order to fight the coronavirus,” reporter Amichai Stein told Channel 11 News.

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Stein says there are no guarantees that the government will limit itself to basic tracking of the location of a smartphone to see if an infected person came near anyone else, or to monitoring that those infected stay in mandated quarantine.

Because no oversight committee was set up, there’s nothing to stop the NSA from activating the microphone and camera on a smartphone to spy on citizens, or read their e-mails or WhatsApp messages, Stein says.

The cabinet committee expected to meet on Sunday will be chaired by Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and include immigration ministers and former IDF Gen. Yoav Galant (res.), Justice Minister Amir Ohana and Environment Minister Ze’ev Elkin.

All five are members of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party.