Under COVID, Israeli Army and Police Monitor Social Media to Prevent Gatherings

Thousands of soldiers have been put to work, keeping tabs on revelers attending illegal events under COVID restrictions. Some worry this might be another step down the 'slippery slope' to authoritarianism

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Soldiers at the Israeli army's epidemiological investigation center, September 2020
Soldiers at the Israeli army's epidemiological investigation center, September 2020Credit: Gil Cohen Magen
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Alon Command, the Israel Defense Forces program for breaking chains of coronavirus infections, tracks social media to identify planned events with the potential to spread the virus. Current coronavirus regulations in Israel prohibit large indoor or outdoor gatherings.

The monitoring is carried out by around 2,800 soldiers, some of whom serve in Military Intelligence and specialize in tracking social media. The intelligence they gather is forwarded to the police so they can scuttle the planned events. The soldiers’ work has helped prevent a number of outdoor rave parties as well as several large weddings. In a few cases, social media posts tipped off the monitors to individuals who were breaking quarantine. These cases were also referred to the police.

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The army says these methods are effective and have reduced the potential for transmission of the disease. But monitoring social media is a violation of privacy, part of the “slippery slope” many have warned about when the state introduces invasive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

It should come as no surprise that these are the same methods the defense establishment has used against Palestinians in the territories. In 2015, when a series of car-ramming and stabbing attacks by so-called lone wolf assailants not associated with a particular terrorist organization began, the IDF and the Shin Bet security service began to intensively monitor the social media posts of young Palestinians. Various methods were devised to flag attacks in the early stages of planning, and many attacks were indeed foiled.

In the pandemic, the “enemy” is a virus, not a terrorist. But in a version of “mission creep,” the authorities, and certainly soldiers in uniform, are finding themselves in unexplored territory.

Israel is using more invasive means to battle the coronavirus than other Western democracies. Some Asian countries – including democracies such as South Korea, not to mention autocratic regimes such as China – are using tactics that constitute an extreme violation of citizens’ rights.

The most obvious example in Israel is Shin Bet’s use of cellphone location tracking to determine when someone has been near a confirmed patient. At the Shin Bet’s insistence and out of privacy concerns, the agency is not forwarding its tracking data to Alon. These are two separate systems; anyone flagged by the Shin Bet as having been in the proximity of a confirmed patient will receive a text message from the Health Ministry, without having their details passed on to the Alon investigators.

From the beginning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressing to broaden the use of advanced technologies to fight the pandemic, even at the risk of undermining individual freedoms. It was Netanyahu who pushed Shin Bet to use the phone tracking, despite the express objections of Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman. At a recent cabinet meeting Netanyahu even spoke about using street cameras to identify and fine people who weren’t wearing masks in the street.

A woman holds a small bottle labeled with a "Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine" sticker and a medical syringe in front of displayed Pfizer logo in this illustration taken, October 30, 2020. Credit: Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Vaccine dreams

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the outgoing coronavirus czar Prof. Roni Gamzu have described the IDF’s Alon center as the most advanced in the world to cut chains of infection. The way the military organized it in a relatively short time is indeed impressive. But the results are so far pretty limited. The level of public cooperation is low and the IDF investigators get the feeling that a significant number of coronavirus patients are being evasive or lying about the number of people they were in contact with during the days preceding their diagnosis.

In this context, even though the daily level of identified infections is still not high, Israel seems to be banking on a vaccine in the near future. After signing an agreement with pharma giant Pfizer on Friday, Netanyahu boasted that the vaccination of Israelis would begin as soon as January. Health Ministry officials offered forecasts that were more cautious and probably more realistic; the vaccines will begin to arrive slowly during the first quarter of 2021. By April there is hope for a broader supply of the vaccine, assuming there are no glitches along the way.

Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute has issued some scenarios based on different calculations regarding the effectiveness of the vaccine. If it turns out that Pfizer is correct and its vaccine is 90 percent effective (which is a high level, certainly when we’re talking about a new virus and a totally new development method), then the vaccination of half a million people in order of priority could bring about a quick and palpable drop in the rate of infection and mortality.

Segal assumes that the early vaccinations will go to the elderly, heath care workers, nursing home staffs and perhaps service workers who come in contact with many different people in the course of their jobs. That’s apparently the plan in Israel and in other countries that will receive the vaccine. But one must remember that Pfizer has yet to publish data on the effectiveness of its vaccine among the older population.

People walk by the Pfizer headquarters, 2020 in New York City, November, 9 2020.Credit: David Dee Delgado - AFP

Another major obstacle is the special handling the vaccine requires during transport to Israel and within Israel. The vaccines must be stored and moved at extremely low temperatures. On this issue, not only has the Health Ministry started preparing late, but the IDF hasn’t been brought into the picture at all. This raises questions, since the IDF’s logistical array is broad and relatively experienced, and the state has made use of it for various other missions during the crisis, like delivering coronavirus tests.

The coronavirus cabinet discussions have been focusing on whether to continue to ease the restrictions on the public, given that the rate of infection has gone up somewhat. The Health Ministry stresses that the infection coefficient (the R number) has risen above 1 for the first time since the second lockdown was lifted, meaning that each patient infects more than one additional person, on average. But the data of the past few weeks shows other signs of stability: In the past two weeks, the ratio of positive tests from among all tests hasn’t changed significantly. The caution is understandable, given the blunders of the past. But it’s hard to explain the government’s total lack of action regarding the hundreds of thousands of children stuck at home since September.

Over the weekend the Kan public broadcaster aired an image of Netanyahu sitting on the beach near his home in Caesarea reading a book, surrounded by bodyguards. The picture was apparently snapped by chance and was not part of a calculated PR move, like the photos generally released by the Prime Minister’s Office. While the security is certainly necessary, the picture inadvertently portrayed Netanyahu as being in his own bubble, disconnected from the problems pursuing his citizens, who are about to begin another gloomy coronavirus winter.

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