Israeli Security Officials Concerned About Using 'Terrorist-tracking' Methods on Coronavirus Patients

Top security officials worry about how the decision was made and what its repercussions could be: exposure of Israeli intelligence methods, leaks of personal information and a worrisome precedent for democracy

A person walking with a mask, Qalandiya Checkpoint, West Bank, March 18, 2020.
Emil Salman אמיל סלמן

Senior Israeli security officials are divided over the controversial decision to task the Shin Bet security service and its digital surveillance measures to track people infected with the coronavirus and those who were in their proximity. Until now, the advanced technology was solely designed and used to combat terrorists and criminals.

Most senior officials, both current and former ones, concede that in light of the crisis, the use of such digital measures in a restrained and supervised manner is an “unavoidable necessity.” However, many expressed concern with the way the decision was made. “I am concerned that Israel, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has concentrated too much power and authority in his hands, will embark on a slippery slope,” said Ephraim Halevy, a former Mossad chief.

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“With the crisis accelerating the question is what was the alternative,” asks Ofer Dekel, a former deputy head of the Shin Bet. “Does the country have an alternative, a solution which will ensure a rapid adaptation of measures to reduce the spread of the virus? I think that the answer is that there is no other alternative. Only the Shin Bet’s digital measures can meet the two requirements for handling the crisis: speed and thorough epidemiological inquiry.”

According to Dekel the measures help the health authorities to quickly identify the exact location and time that each infected patient crossed paths with other people. “I am familiar with the technology and we used it frequently and successfully in the war against terrorists,” said Arik (Harris) Barbing, a former head of the Jerusalem and West Bank district of the security service. “It helped us to collect data, arrest them, provide early warnings of their plots and prevent attacks,” said Barbing, a cybertech expert and former head of the agency’s cyber division.

The Shin Bet system integrates equipment, hardware, software, information and analysis and turns it into big data. Primarily it is based on cellular companies. Each company has stored the personal details of its subscriber: name, identity card and credit card numbers which are linked to the phone number issued by the company. The Shin Bet law of 2002 allows the agency to have access without a court order to the cellular companies’ computers for the aim of combating terrorism. In contrast, the police can have limited access for seven days and only with a court order.

The technology enables the tracking of the location and movement of people, in a radius of up to dozens of meters via signals sent from and to cellular phones and their interconnected antennas. It uses GPS, street cameras, as well as special thermal devices. It bugs phone and computer conversations, extracts voice samples and monitors chats and messages in social media (including Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube). All this information is stored as big data in the Shin Bet computers. The technology also enables the security service to retrieve the information retroactively up to 14 days.

Until the Shin Bet entered the picture, “the Ministry of Health based its inquiries on the memory of a patient once he entered the hospital,” noted Barbing. “But the human memory is tricky and elusive. People don’t remember whom they saw in a supermarket or railway station.”

Now the process is handled in a different way. The Ministry of Health provides the Shin Bet with details of the people who are sick and hospitalized. The security service uses its methods to determine who was in contact with these patients or within two meters of their vicinity for at least 15 minutes and where these individuals have been since then. That information is handed over to the Ministry of Health, which then sends text messages to these people instructing them to be quarantined at home and tested.

Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman issued a special statement last week acknowledging the sensitivity of the decision, and promising that the information collected would be used solely for the purpose of epidemic inquiry and that the Shin Bet would neither hack nor bug phones nor use visual measures to film. He also promised that after 14 days the information of each patient would be destroyed.

Some European countries that have an especially high death toll from the virus, such as Italy and Spain, have already shown interest in the Israeli system and approached the Shin Bet for more information.

Yet, not only Israeli human rights groups and activists are concerned about the intrusive measures which they regard as an invasion of privacy. Top security officials have also expressed their worries.

“I trust the Shin Bet, but don’t trust Netanyahu,” says Ram Ben-Barak, a former Mossad deputy director who, in his long years of service in operations outside Israel, acquainted himself with the digital surveillance gadgets. “Even before the use of these measures we witnessed how the prime minister is breaking down our democracy,” added Ben-Barak, who is now a Kahol Lavan member of Knesset and a strong voice in the anti-Netanyahu camp. “The introduction of the measures had to be done according to the Shin Bet law and not by Netanyahu issuing emergency laws, after midnight like a thief at night,” he emphasized, referring to the passage of emergency legislation in the middle of the night last week in a move that circumvented the Knesset.

Ben-Barak is worried about two other possible consequences. One is the risk of exposure of the technology to Israel’s enemies, such as Iranian spies and Arab terrorists, thus endangering future operations. True, the technology is known to many nations around the world. But the experience and knowhow acquired by the Israeli intelligence over years of systematic use by trial and error has consolidated Israel’s unique edge in this technology. His second concern is the danger of leaks. Israeli has not excelled in the field of safeguarding secrets. On many occasions classified information from the country’s registries, either medical, tax or electoral records, reached the wrong hands.

The only top security official who expresses no misgivings about the decision or the way it was made is Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet. Dichter, now deputy defense minister and an ardent disciple of Netanyahu, said that “we are dealing with a life and death situation and there is no time for hesitations and political games,” says the Likud MK, blaming Kahol Lavan and its leader Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff, of doing that. Three other former heads of the Shin Bet declined to comment.

Halevy, the former Mossad head, concedes that “In times of emergency the safety of the population is a top priority.” But he urges caution and a broader perspective in the wake of the dramatic changes unfolding rapidly in Israel. “We have to ask ourselves, what next,” he says, comparing the situation to a large gate with a lock. “We opened the gate two millimeters. It’s a small crack. But it’s a precedent. I know that Nadav Argaman is a serious and professional director. But what will happen in the future when he is succeeded? What will happen when the attorney general is replaced? We have reached a point in which too much power and authority are concentrated in the hands of one person. Today we use the special measures of the Shin Bet; tomorrow it may be a budget passed through emergency laws without the approval of the Knesset’s finance committee. Effectively, we have no government, no security cabinet, no courts, no Knesset. The entire structure of democracy is collapsing.”