The government decided to put a hold on efforts to pass legislation allowing police to track the cellphones of people who are required to be in quarantine due to their possible exposure to the coronavirus. As a result, use of “geolocation” ended Wednesday night and police are now to focus on using other isolation enforcement measures, including surprise visits to the homes of people supposed to be in quarantine.
The decision to freeze the legislation was made because of doubts raised in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee over the necessity of such tracking. In addition, government officials found it difficult to provide the committee with data on the number of people who have violated their isolation orders, and on how the database is maintained.
Knesset members on the committee presented a long list of reservations about the bill at the committee session on Wednesday, and the committee’s chairman, Kahol Lavan MK Gabi Ashkenazi, said Justice Minister Amir Ohana decided to withdraw the bill “in light of the problems and discrepancies raised at the four committee sessions.” Ohana has asked for “a timeout in which the proposal will remain on the committee’s agenda until there are answers on these matters. For now, the police will continue with enforcement ... without telephone geolocation from [Wednesday] night,” Ashkenazi said.
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Over the past few weeks, the government has promoted two parallel tracks for electronic tracking of citizens during the coronavirus crisis. The first, which was halted on Wednesday, is relatively limited and was meant to enable the police and Health Ministry to take daily random samples of the mobile phones of 500 people required to be in medical isolation, to confirm they were staying in their homes. This process was originally approved as part of the government’s emergency orders, and was intended to reduce the number of police patrols having to check up on these people.
The second geolocation process has a much wider scope – but no legislation to allow it has been proposed. This procedure grants the Shin Bet security service the authority to use their technology to locate where people with COVID-19 have been and identify who they have come in contact with.
Over the past week, the committee has held a series of hearings to examine the government’s request to urgently approve the bill to replace the emergency orders – and allow the police to continue to track the random sample of 500 people a day in isolation. When asked about how the database is operated, who has the authority to add or delete names from it and the effectiveness of the project, the Health and Justice ministries provided only partial information to the committee.
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An estimated 15 percent of those in isolation are violating it, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, the director general of the Health Ministry, told the committee on Wednesday – but he told the MKs to ask the police for more information. Bar Siman Tov said he thought the use of the data justified the violation of privacy and was needed in order to enable the economy to return to normal, in response to questions.
It emerged that the database includes only some 20 percent of those required to be in isolation, and about 6,000 people on the Health Ministry’s website who volunteered for quarantine.