Shin Bet Tracking, Police Check-ups: Pandemic Spurs Rise of Israel's Big Coronavirus Brother

Thanks to the coronavirus, more and more government bodies and private groups are tracking where Israelis are and what they're doing

Refaella Goichman
Refaella Goichman
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A man wearing a protective face mask amid the coronavirus pandemic while looking in his phone, March 2020.
A man wearing a protective face mask amid the coronavirus pandemic while looking in his phone, March 2020. Credit: AFP
Refaella Goichman
Refaella Goichman

A person gets a text message alerting of close contact with a person known to have the coronavirus at a certain date and time. They check and know the information to be erroneous – they were either at home or somewhere far from the alleged carrier. Or the neighbor in the next apartment is a confirmed case and that is probably what alerted the system. Or someone put food at the door of an infected person’s apartment but they never had any direct contact with each other.

In instances like these, the recipient of the warning calls the Health Ministry hotline and is told: We have no way of confirming the report, so you must go into quarantine. “The Shin Bet [security service] doesn’t make mistakes,” the callers are told and that’s the end of the matter.

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Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

Thus, without any right of appeal thousands of Israelis have been wrongly ordered into quarantine. For many it means no longer earning a salary and or caring for their children or elderly parents.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic a monitoring revolution has taken place in less than a month, that has sidelined our right to privacy. Millions of Israelis are now subject to the same Shin Bet-style monitoring once reserved mainly for terrorist suspects.

Others have also joined this revolution. The Health Ministry has launched an app and now the Defense Ministry and Mossad want to join that trend, too. On top of that, private companies have entered the picture, among them startups and health maintenance organizations.

No pushback

It’s worrisome how this revolution has come about with hardly any pushback from a public focused on fearing the pandemic. The only protests so far have come from a handful of privacy experts and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Israel Democracy Institute, Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Here is a list of which government and private bodies are part of the new coronavirus-monitoring regime and what they are doing:

Shin Bet: The domestic-security agency was the pioneer. When it became clear that the coronavirus was spreading uncontrollably, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued emergency directives in mid-March authorizing the Shin Bet to help the Health Ministry track people via cellular networks to find out who had come in close contact with anyone testing positive for coronavirus.

The initiative was undertaken without Knesset approval or supervision, resulting in three lawsuits fled with the High Court of Justice to block it. The court gave the Shin Bet temporary approval to begin the monitoring, subject to the arrangement of some form of Knesset supervision.

The Knesset subcommittee on intelligence matters, chaired by Gabi Ashkenazi (Kahol Lavan) learned in its debates that not only were location details being monitored, but the details of conversations as well. Nevertheless, after four hearings (one closed to the public during which the Shin Bet provided details about its monitoring methods), the committee gave a go-ahead for the operation to continue.

There is no way to challenge a quarantine order issued on the basis of data collected by this monitoring system.

The Shin Bet has also been empowered to gather further information, the location and movements over a two week quarantine period for all people testing positive for the virus. The agency also obtains the names, identity numbers, and birthdays of all who have come into contact a carrier, including the time and place where such meetings occurred.

The movements of more than 8,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Israel are being tracked in this manner, and how many more people are under surveillance for contact with them is unknown.

The Health Ministry: A week after the monitoring system began the ministry launched a Magen (Protector) app to alert users when they come into possible contact with a person testing positive for coronavirus based on where the latter has been. The app was developed with the National Cyber Security Authority, the startup Profero and privacy experts. It has been downloaded by 1.5 million Israelis.

From the minute the app is downloaded, it collects and stores information on where the user has been over a 14-day period. For privacy protection, the ministry, however, doesn’t know the user’s identity. The app lets you know whether you’ve been in contact with someone infected by the coronavirus, but unlike the case with the Shin Bet system, it is up to the user to decide how to apply the information.

The Israel Police: The emergency orders from mid-March also authorize the police to get location data from the cellphones of Israelis who have been ordered into quarantine. That is to ensure that they are adhering to the rules.

Because there are tens of thousands under mandatory quarantine at home, the police are only taking data samples and visiting the homes of those quarantined on a random basis. Between March 26-30, the locations of 926 people under quarantine were examined and 100 were found to not be present at the addresses they had been assigned to stay at for their quarantine.

The HMOs and Diagnostic Robotics: They were cooperating with the Health Ministry in the distribution of questionnaires to build a national database for identifying concentrations of coronavirus patients and to help predict the future trajectory of the pandemic. The startup Diagnostic Robotics is also part of the undertaking and was responsible for developing the app.

The ministry said the system doesn’t collect any identifying information about the users, and does not allow its operators to contact people who have completed the questionnaire.

The survey is being distributed to members of the biggest HMO, Clalit, by text message. Other HMOs are also set to join the effort. Clalit says it will store the data and may share it with others abroad as part of the global fight against the pandemic.

The Interior Ministry: Last week, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Interior Ministry Arye Dery agreed that the Interior Ministry would get personal data on coronavirus patients and those in quarantine.

In turn, that information will be given to the local authorities where they reside who are supposed to use it to help those having trouble keeping to the quarantine restrictions, locate those who have been in contact with a carrier who can’t be reached in any other way and provide services to them.

The Interior Ministry has promised to respect the privacy of those in the database, but it has not revealed what mechanisms it’s using to relay the information to local authorities or protect the data it holds.

The Defense Ministry: Last week, TheMarker revealed that the joint command of the Defense Ministry and the IDF had developed a system with the controversial cyberattack company NSO to rate Israelis based on their potential for infecting others with the coronavirus.

It is not monitoring people but analyzing Shin Bet data, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has said. The system has not yet been activated, which is pending consultations with the Justice Ministry and the attorney general.

The Mossad has been the latest to join the revolution. Last week, the government issued a request for information for startups and academic researchers to develop tools for the Mossad to analyze and monitor people’s movements, to analyze data by geography and socioeconomic parameters, and to monitor communities, how people are adhering to social-distancing directives and relevant behavior.

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