Israel Backtracks on Granting Police Unrestricted Access to COVID Contact Tracing Data

Instead Justice Ministry seeks to allow epidemiological investigators to contact the police on their own initiative if they suspect a 'serious crime'

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Israelis wearing face masks sit on their cell phones in Tel Aviv, September 2020.
Israelis wearing face masks sit on their cell phones in Tel Aviv, September 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The Israeli government backtracked on its intention to advance an amendment that would allow police unrestricted access to the information it collects from the contact tracing of coronavirus patients for use in criminal investigations.

In addition, the Prime Minister’s Office retracted its request to authorize epidemiological investigators to inform the police about any criminal suspicion arising from their patients’ contact tracing.

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The Justice Ministry is reexamining the wording of the draft so that the epidemiological investigators will be able to contact the police on their own initiative if they suspect that a “serious crime” has been committed.

However, according to Justice Department officials involved in formulating the draft, the police already have the ability to obtain any information from epidemiological investigations for the purpose of their own investigations, even without a warrant. The officials added that amending the law is only supposed to clarify the existing situation.

Last week, the Prime Minister’s Office distributed a draft of the proposed legislation, which was primarily aimed at increasing the fines for violating coronavirus regulations. But one of the clauses the cabinet sought to pass, pending Knesset approval, discusses contact tracing, also known as epidemiological investigations.

The change would amend the section of the Public Health Ordinance that states: “Information obtained under this clause is to be kept solely in the Health Ministry information systems.” The wording would add, “Nothing stated in this subclause detracts from the police’s authority under any regulation to obtain information if needed for a criminal investigation.”

The law allows the Shin Bet to track the cellphones of coronavirus patients, but forbids the use of information the service collects for any purpose other than contact tracing, including for criminal investigations or as evidence in court.

The change would essentially give the police unfettered access to any information obtained by the Health Ministry during epidemiological investigations to use in any criminal investigation, even if it has nothing to do with the coronavirus, so long as "they believe that this is necessary.”

The bill, which was drafted by the legal counsel and legislative affairs department of the Justice Ministry, drew widespread criticism, including concern that police access to private medical information would prevent patients from providing full testimonies for fear it could be used against them in a criminal investigation.

The law was roundly condemned by human rights organizations and the Public Defender’s Office, which demanded at least a restriction on legislative changes. Against the background of widespread opposition, the government and the Justice Ministry decided not to promote the change in the law. However, they are instead examining the possibility of the epidemiological investigation passing on information to the police for exceptional cases.

The Justice Ministry responded that “at this stage and until further examination, it was decided not to amend the sections concerning the transfer and receipt of information from contact tracing. However, this does not detract from the legal right of the Israel Police to gather information on its own initiative, including from an epidemiological investigation if a criminal offense is suspected.”

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