Israel Extends Security Service Tracking of Coronavirus Cases for Three More Weeks

Knesset subcommittee authorizes continuation of Shin Bet surveillance for the purpose of contact tracing

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Patrons at a newly reopened Jerusalem mall, May 2020.
Patrons at a newly reopened Jerusalem mall, May 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Shin Bet security service will be allowed to continue electronic tracking of coronavirus cases and those in contact with them for another three weeks after the Knesset's subcommittee for intelligence authorized the extension on Tuesday.

The committee determined that this authorization will expire in three weeks unless the government submits legislation anchoring the authorization in law by June 8. The committee also approved the cabinet’s request to limit this surveillance to cases in which it is impossible to perform contact tracing by other means. Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Matters Raz Nizri said at the meeting that the decision to add the criteria for involving the Shin Bet resulted from a drop in the number patients. If this rises again, the government will ask for another extension.

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“We said that we’re not happy using Shin Bet tools, and that the drop in numbers has allowed this request to go forward, while still controlling for risk factors,” said Nizri. “If the numbers rise again and we don’t have an effective alternative, we’ll bring forth another request to this committee.” According to the final approved version of the decision, “the concrete professional criteria [for tracking people] in individual cases will be determined together with the director-general of the Health Ministry, with the recommendation of the person in charge of public health.”

These criteria will be published on the ministry's website. The committee will get updates every six days regarding the tracking, with the reasons for using the Shin Bet to assist the Health Ministry presented for each case.

The head of the committee, lawmaker Zvi Hauser of Derech Eretz, said that “almost 17,000 infected people have been identified in Israel, 4,000 of them through the use of this tracking method. This is a high percentage of the chains of infection, which would not have been broken without using these means."

Lawmaker Eli Avidar of Yisrael Beiteinu warned that the government was using the coronavirus in order to expand the number of people being followed by the security service. “People don’t understand, or don’t want to, that the prime minister has no intention of stopping this tracking," he said. "All the talk about a second wave is meant to pave the way for the Shin Bet to track citizens, creating a democratic dictatorship.”

Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar meanwhile said that “in principle, regarding the question of whether this tool should be used in fighting the virus, I say yes. If the technology allows us to fight the pandemic, then the right to life overcomes the right to privacy of fewer people. When we see legislation that derives from a High Court of Justice ruling, we’ll have to seriously consider effective alternatives.” Hauser and Sa’ar voted in favor of the resolution to extend the Shin Bet's tracking while Avidar opposed it.

Roni Kaiser, director of the Health Ministry's Directorate for Medical Technologies, Informatics and Research, suggested use of the Magen app, which alerts users if they have been in possible contact with a coronavirus case, as an alternative to using the Shin Bet tracking. The app was developed with the National Cyber Security Authority, the startup Profero and privacy experts. Kaiser said that 870,000 people actively use this app, comprising 17 percent of people with smartphones. The next version will enable the identification of cellphones located within six feet from a diagnosed patient for at least 15 minutes, without invading the privacy or specifying the exact location of the phone’s owner. The Health Ministry says that in order for the app to be effective, 4 million users must download it and activate it on a regular basis.

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