Israel Has Flattened the Curve, but Still Pushes for Shin Bet Tracking of Coronavirus Patients

Proposed legislation, which rights group says sets 'dangerous, severe precedent,' allows security service to trace where patients had been in the two weeks prior to diagnosis

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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A woman uses her cellphone while wearing a mask in Jerusalem, May 5, 2020.
A woman uses her cellphone while wearing a mask in Jerusalem, May 5, 2020.Credit: Emili Salman
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Prime Minister’s Office circulated a memorandum overnight Tuesday detailing plans for legislation to allow Shin Bet tracking of coronavirus patients, which has been carried out until now under an emergency order, despite a sharp decline in confirmed cases in Israel.

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The legislation would enable authorities to trace a confirmed patient’s whereabouts, through techonological means, during the two weeks preceding the diagnosis and discern with whom they were in contact during the disease’s incubation period.

The Shin Bet conducted such tracking under emergency regulations until the High Court of Justice ruling on a petition against the practice established that such tracing must be regulated by the Knesset as a temporary measure.

The bill stipulates that if the government decides that tracing is no longer necessary, they may rescind the Shin Bet’s authority to track patients, but entitles the government to renew the practice if necessary. The law would implement a temporary measure, valid for three months, which could be extended for one additional three month period.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said it would “act to reverse the measure in court” should it be brought to a Knesset vote. “Using the Shin Bet’s tracking capabilities for needs other than preventive security sets a dangerous, severe precedent,” it said. “It seems the outgoing government fell in love with using Shin Bet, and for months hasn’t really looked into any [civilian] alternatives,” the rights group added.

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Shulamit Fargo-Barnea, the office’s legal adviser, says in the memorandum that “the need for continued assistance on the part of the service [i.e., Shin Bet] is based, to a great extent, on the opinion of the chief public health epidemiologist, which indicates that the service’s help in locating people who were in contact with an infected person is essential, even at this time, in order to continue to contain the spread of the virus as much as possible.”

The Health Ministry would be allowed to store data for up to 60 days, for the purpose of internal investigations, “in such a manner as to ensure the secrecy and confidentiality of any identifying details of these patients or those with whom they have had contact.” In an effort to further protect the privacy of infected individuals, the bill stipulates that only authorized Health Ministry personnel would have access to this information. Such officials would have to sign a confidentiality agreement with the potential of facing criminal proceedings for any violations. Anyone found to have been in contact with an infected person would not receive any details about the infected individual.

The court decision preventing the Shin Bet from monitoring journalists, so as to protect their sources, will remain intact, though the memorandum states that the government decided not to include it in the wording of the bill.

There are no plans to protect journalists under the law, but in practice, the ministry has a list of journalists with government identification cards. In instances where journalists are infected with COVID-19 they would be asked to agree to provide the Shin Bet with their personal details. This information would not be supplied automatically without their consent. Any journalist refusing to do so would be given 24 hours to appeal for a restraining order, while an epidemiological investigation is conducted. The journalists would also have to commit to informing sources with whom they were in contact in the 14 days before their diagnosis.

Fargo-Barnea writes that this practice with regard to journalists is already in effect and that the Health Ministry has a list of journalists registered with the Government Press Office.

The government notified the Knesset of its intent to advance the legislation. Earlier this month, the government won the approval of the committee that monitors Shin Bet activity to extend the previous tracing mandate (under the emergency regulations) for three weeks until May 26, to allow for time to pass the new legislation without disrupting the process of collecting data on coronavirus carriers.

In recent weeks the number of confirmed new cases has dropped dramatically, with ten to a few dozen cases diagnosed each day. On Tuesday, 16 new cases were confirmed in Israel, compared to hundreds a day at the epidemic’s peak.

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