Top Israeli Health Official Backs Digital Tracking of COVID Patients: Time for 'Difficult Steps'

The Israeli government votes to advance a bill allowing security service to track COVID patients for up to 2 weeks at a time, which must now pass a Knesset vote

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Passengers at Ben-Gurion International Airport, last week.
Passengers at Ben-Gurion International Airport, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The debate over using Israel's Shin Bet security service to track coronavirus patients continued on Tuesday amid alarm over the omicron variant, with the head of the country's public health services backing the policy and a deputy attorney general saying it was “problematic and is being done for lack of choice.”

The government voted on Tuesday to advance legislation that would allow the Shin Bet to track coronavirus carriers' cellphones for no more than 14 days at a time.

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"This is the moment to take difficult steps," Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of the Health Ministry's public health department, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee as it considered approving the tracking. "We thought we had left the tracking behind and wouldn't need it anymore, and this variant came and showed us there still is [a need], especially at the beginning." Alroy-Preis said the tracking would only continue as long as the number of omicron cases remains low and would end if omicron becomes the dominant strain in the country. She said the ministry had not yet settled on a specific number of cases as a threshold for ending the tracking.

Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Matters Raz Nizri said cellphone tracking is “problematic and is being done for lack of choice.” He noted that the Shin Bet "is not supposed to track citizens,” but that “there is an exception to every rule, and this is now the case.”

He said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz had told officials from the attorney general’s office that the tracking was needed immediately, but his office sought to explore alternatives and insisted the entire cabinet approve the measure, not just the coronavirus cabinet. It was ultimately agreed that the measures would be approved for temporary use until they could be legislated in the Knesset. He emphasized that his colleagues thought there was no other choice but to approve the measures after “the sense of urgency and importance among officials became clear and most ministers thought there was absolute justification for them.”

The Justice Ministry’s Privacy Protection Authority submitted its position to the Knesset committee ahead of its hearing on Tuesday, arguing that tracking is an excessive tool that significantly violates the right to privacy and must therefore be examined closely.

“As of this moment, it seems there are question marks regarding the need and justification for renewing the Shin Bet’s tracking, and in any case the need for its use should be continuously reviewed, paying attention to medical findings and general data about the new variant and its damage,” it stated.

The authority added: “Should it be found in the coming days that there is no spread of the new variant, or that it doesn’t cause more serious illnesses than the known variants, it should have substantial repercussion on, and even determine, the proportionality of the use of this Shin Bet tool.”

The cabinet approved the digital tracking on Sunday. The approval is valid until Thursday, by which time it seeks to advance legislation on the issue.

The government stressed in its announcement about the new regulations that the Shin Bet will not enforce quarantines and that the decision will be limited in time and reevaluated on a daily basis. “In the case of a widespread outbreak, the use of Shin Bet tracking will be halted,” the announcement added.

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