Israel Police Seek Software to Locate Gatherings, Enforce Coronavirus Lockdown

The tool would identify a gathering of 50 or more people in ‘almost real time,’ without tracking cellphones or collecting personal information, police claim

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Israel Police patrolling the streets of the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood of Jerusalem, March 31, 2020.
Israel Police patrolling the streets of the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood of Jerusalem, March 31, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Israel Police has asked local companies Sunday to provide the force with software that will enable it to identify gatherings of more than 50 people in “near real time” and allow it to enforce the Health Ministry’s coronavirus restrictions against such gatherings.

Sources familiar with the request said the software would be based on cellphone geolocation. However, according to the document police sent to potential suppliers on Sunday, it will not gather personal information about the phones’ owners.

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The contract will be awarded in a no-bid process due to the “urgent need” for it, the document said, and police hope to start using the software on May 1.

The spread of the coronavirus in Israel necessitates an operational solution that enables the police to identify gatherings of 50 people or more via statistical geographic information in near real time,” the document drafted by the police’s planning department said.

The system must have an accuracy of “plus or minus 100 meters in radius” and must be able to notify the police “within 15 minutes of the time of the gathering at most.” It must also specify the location of the gathering, the number of participants and when it began and ended. The system must also operate 24 hours a day and cover all of Israel.

“This is processed, aggregated and anonymous information that [provides an alert] on gatherings with numerous participants in the public space,” states the request for proposals. The document did not specify when police would stop using the system.

Attorney Avner Pinchuk of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said it wasn’t clear why such a system was needed. “It’s not clear what gatherings police are still seeing these days that they can’t prevent without having this new toy,” he said. “It’s hard to keep up with the flood of monitoring initiatives landing on us in recent days. Every agency is rushing to arrange for its own monitoring and control systems.”

“Despite all the challenges, it’s not clear what threats made the police decide they have to supervise all our movements, and in the process, give private companies access to sensitive databases,” Pinchuk added. “In the end, the coronavirus will disappear from our lives, but the mechanisms of control and command being set up under the cover of a pandemic will remain and continue to threaten our fundamental freedoms.”

An Ultra-Orthodox man wears a protective face mask in Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty

Prof. Michael Birnhack, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, said the fear about using such a system is not just the violation of privacy, but also the freedom to protest. “Assuming that this involves the collection and analysis of information of location from the cellular phone companies, the question also arises as to the effectiveness of the tool, because a person who now goes to pray in a minyan on Shabbat does not carry a telephone with him” said Birnhack.

“There are question marks here mostly in the matter of freedom to protest. The director general of the Health Ministry may have limited demonstrations that are public by their nature, but this tool could well harm protests because it could thwart their legitimate organization by preparing the police in advance,” he added.

Birnhack said he “sees this as mainly another stage in the ‘securitization’ of a civilian crisis. After they assign the Shin Bet an operation for purposes of geolocation, soldiers going around with police officers in cities, the defense minister asking to bring in a company such as NSO into the crisis and the army that is running Bnei Brak, now we are seeing another stage of limiting human rights during this period. It is possible that this is an unpreventable trend but it would be appropriate for us to pay attention to it and think about it,” he added.

The police said in response that “as opposed to what Haaretz claims, the system does not use geolocation but only accumulated anonymous information that the supplier who responds to the ‘request for proposals’ and is awarded [the contract] for providing the services to the police, will supply on the basis of existing information that it has in its possession by virtue of an existing contract. This is not information given by the police to the supplier.”

“Information of this type is used in routine times for commercial purposes, transportation management, planning by local governments, etc. If an indication is received concerning a gathering, then it will be passed on to be checked by the enforcement bodies in the area – and if the indication is verified, the information will be documented as with all other events of gatherings during the present period,” said the police.

The purchasing of this service does not harm personal privacy because “the information on which an indication of a gathering is based is anonymous and unidentified, and its entire purpose is to help in enforcing Health Ministry regulations and the emergency orders,” claimed the police.

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