Israel Mulls Expanding Number of People Shin Bet Can Track for Coronavirus

In response to High Court petition by activists and journalists, public health chief argues for expanding reach of monitoring by Israel's internal security service

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
Share in Facebook
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
An Israeli couple queues to enter a store in Tel Aviv during the coronavirus pandemic, April 12, 2020.
An Israeli couple queues to enter a store in Tel Aviv during the coronavirus pandemic, April 12, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

Israel's public health services chief on Thursday defended the increased use of the Shin Bet security service in monitoring an ever-growing number of people.

Prof. Siegal Sadetzki, the head of the Public Health Services in the Ministry of Health, told the High Court of Justice the ministry was considering expanding “significantly” the use of the Shin Bet’s tracking capabilities.

0:00
-- : --
Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

The hearing was in response filed by attorney Shachar Ben Meir, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights and the Union of Journalists in Israel arguing that the tracking of civilians carried out by the Shin Bet and the police violates the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty.

Sadetzki said the proposed expansion would include the Shin Bet’s tracing of the so-called second circle of contacts, that is anyone who crossed the path of a confirmed COVID-19 patient.

“We are constantly weighing alternative technologies, but first there must be community immunity. As soon as we have that, we’ll be able to issue certificates to people who cannot be infected. We’ll request waivers for these individuals so that we don’t need to receive information about them,” she said.

Representing the state, Shosh Shmueli and Reuven Eidelman argued that the procedure is meant to save lives and that given the circumstances of the pandemic, “it’s difficult to say a patient will feel disrespected or humiliated by this information gathering and processing.”

“If the tools of the Shin Bet are first aid, until other means are found, that’s one thing,” said Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut. “As long as there’s no end in sight to this emergency situation and if we don’t search for alternatives, we have a problem. Also, the Shin Bet has additional jobs to do.”

Justice Noam Sohlberg, responding to the petitioners’ claims, said: “We’re told that the health system is collapsing; isn’t that a national security situation in which the law permits the Shin Bet’s capabilities to be utilized?” To which Deputy President Justice Hanan Melcer added, “The right to life trumps the right to privacy.”

Shmueli said, “We’re in an unprecedented situation. An emergency situation calls for emergency measures. The state does not take the right to privacy lightly, but the right to life is in the balance.” When Hayut asked her why Israel alone deployed its secret services to fight the pandemic, the lawyer for the state said: “Perhaps other states aren’t doing the right thing. Enormous numbers of deaths isn’t something we want to emulate.”

Shmueli said that so far some 4,600 COVID-19 patients have been placed in isolation due to the tracking carried out by the Shin Bet.

The state told the High Court Tuesday that it was considering assigning additional tasks to the Shin Bet in order to aid the Health Ministry while partially lifting the restrictions on freedom of movement.

Israel's High Court of Justice, sitting in Jerusalem, April 16, 2020.
Israel's High Court of Justice, sitting in Jerusalem, April 16, 2020. Credit: Amit Shabi

Haaretz learned that the new task is the use of data already collected by the Shin Bet in order to divide the country into zones based on the incidence of COVID-19 with the aim of ending restrictions in low-risk areas.

In its response to the petitions, the state said the Health Ministry had examined the possibility of using private companies to track patients, but rejected the proposals as infringing on privacy. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett proposed cooperating with the controversial Israeli spyware firm NSO, but the state rejected thesee options as more damaging to privacy and less effective than the Shin Bet’s techniques.

The High Court session was broadcast live as part of a trial, drawing a peak audience of 6,000.

Comments