Israel to Scale Back Shin Bet Tracking of Coronavirus Patients

Beginning January 20, Shin Bet will only be permitted to monitor confirmed COVID-19 patients who refuse to take part in contact tracing or following a significant spike in infections

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent
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People wear masks to protect against the coronavirus in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2020.
People wear masks to protect against the coronavirus in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2020.Credit: Hadas Frosh
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent

The ministerial committee that oversees the Shin Bet security service decided on Wednesday night that beginning January 20, the service will only be permitted to use digital tracking tools to find contacts of confirmed coronavirus patients in case they refuse to take part in epidemiological investigations, or following substantial spikes in the infection rate. 

The Shin Bet recommended that digital tracking tools such as cell phone location data only be used when the daily infection rate rises above 3,000 new cases.

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It was decided that by the next meeting of the committee, in about three weeks, a decision will be made on what actions constitute refusal to take part in epidemiological investigations and above what daily number of new infections the digital tracking tools be used.

The recommendation comes as Israel reported over 2,800 new cases on Tuesday and Health Ministry officials projected stores and public-facing businesses will have to close within a week. 

The decision of the committee, headed by Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen, must still be approved by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

The committee said that the decision is based on the recommendation of the Intelligence Ministry and the opinion of the Shin Bet, which noted that with improvements in the epidemiological investigations network and the overlap between agencies in contact tracing, Shin Bet digital tracking should be used in a focused manner only when confirmed patients do not cooperate with contract tracers. 

The law allowing the Shin Bet to employ digital monitoring is set to expire on January 21, 2021.

A group of civil society organizations, among them the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Adalah legal aid center and Physicians for Human Rights, petitioned the High Court of Justice to strike down the law permitting the digital monitoring.

The law was passed in July, after the Shin Bet had already been using digital monitoring for four months. The law says that as long as the number of new cases tops 200 a day, the government may use the Shin Bet for monitoring for a period of 21 days, which may be extended.

According to figures presented to the ministerial committee on Wednesday night, 93 percent of all current coronavirus patients were located by human contact tracers of the Home Front Command, which meant that the Shin Bet had located only 7 percent of patients.

“I thank the Shin Bet for enlisting in the war against the coronavirus,” Cohen said at the meeting. “The Shin Bet tools located hundreds of thousands of contacts, and saved the lives of at least 400 Israelis and reduced the damage to the economy. Nevertheless, this is not the organization’s core activity. The best experts in the Shin Bet enlisted to save citizens from the disease and the results were significant.”

Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, criticized the ministerial committee’s decision: “Like a smoke screen, they announce the cessation of surveillance of the whole population, but allow convenient ways back to the warm bosom of Shin Bet tracing at every given phase,” she said.

“Although at an early point we repeatedly warned of the limited effectiveness, ten months after the outbreak of the crisis, the government of Israel has refused to completely wean itself off of Shin Bet tracking.”

Shwartz Altshuler said that the government’s concentrated management of the crisis has not proved itself at any point along the way.

“Instead of insisting on Shin Bet tracking and failed apps of various kinds, the government should help the free market – employers, hospitals, educational institutions and shopping malls – to develop their own technological solutions that would allow a much more effective routine,” which would be less invasive of privacy, she said.

“This saga is a reminder to all of us the extent to which the state can surveille us, and that despite the longing for technology, the most effective tool is human contact tracers,” she added.

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