Israel Freezes Bill Allowing Shin Bet Tracking of Coronavirus Patients Due to Agency's Objection

Shin Bet chief tells government panel his organization shouldn't be involved in a civilian matter ■ Ministers green light bill on government's authority to impose emergency regulations

Noa Landau
Jonathan Lis
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Israelis with masks in Tel Aviv, March 2020
Israelis with masks in Tel Aviv, March 2020Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Noa Landau
Jonathan Lis

A bill that would allow the Shin Bet to track confirmed and suspected coronavirus patients was frozen on Monday, potentially ending the Israeli government's use of the secret service's capabilities in its efforts to curb the pandemic's spread.

In a meeting of the government panel tasked with managing the coronavirus crisis, it also green lighted a bill that would write into law the government's authority to impose emergency regulations, which still has yet to be voted on by the Knesset. Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that the bill will be voted on next week.

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According to sources who attended the meeting, Shin Bet Chief Nadav Argaman told ministers that his defense agency should not be involved in what officials present called a controversial civilian issue.

The organization's capabilities, Argaman said, are no longer needed, seeing as the pandemic is under control in Israel. Furthermore, the Shin Bet has been concerned that some of the technologies it uses could be exposed.

It was Argaman's opinion, according to sources who attended the meeting, that led to the ministers' decision to put the bill on hold. The Shin Bet chief proposed using civilian tools, like the "HaMagen" app, instead of the agency's technology, to track the spread of the coronavirus.

A Knesset panel for intelligence gave the government 48 hours to present an amended version of the bill, should ministers decide to do so. They are expected to bring the bill to vote at the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Tuesday, but stall it there before potentially asking for a Knesset vote, making it quicker to pass if deemed necessary by the government.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which petitioned the High Court of Justice in a bid to block Shin Bet tracking, released a statement saying, “There’s no place in a democratic society to employ mass, constant surveillance against innocent civilians. This is a slippery and dangerous slope.”

“It seems that even the Shin Bet chief has his reservations about the bill,” it added, calling for voluntary, civilian alternatives, alongside conducting more coronavirus tests.

Following the debate on the emergency bill, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "First of all, we've decided to put on the brakes. We've halted the easing of restrictions that was meant to go into effect in the coming days. We will look into it again next week. The only exemption is event halls – we will allow them to operate according to the Health Ministry regulations."

"The experts are showing us a very sharp increase in new infections. It could be that we've already reached a 10-day doubling in the rate of cases, though I deeply hope not," Netanyahu added.

The Health Ministry told the Knesset subcommittee for intelligence that it has only referred to the Shin Bet for assistance once in the past two weeks, asking to use cellular tracking data to locate people who have been in contact with a confirmed patient.

In late May, the Knesset subcommittee for intelligence authorized a three-week extension on authorization for Shin Bet tracking to be used to monitor the spread of the virus, which is set to expire on Tuesday. The committee determined that the authorization would expire unless the government submits legislation anchoring the authorization in law.

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 this criterion for involving the Shin Bet resulted from a drop in the number patients. However, the number of daily confirmed coronavirus patients has since risen significantly.

“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.”

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