Israeli Doctors Warn Shin Bet Surveillance Actually Hindering Efforts to Combat Coronavirus

Physicians' association claims the security service's use of technology to identify people who have come in contact with carriers of the coronavirus is not providing the right information

Pedestrians with face masks in Tel Aviv, March 2020.
Ofer Vaknin

The Israel Association of Public Health Physicians voiced objection on Thursday to efforts by the Shin Bet security service to monitor the movements of Israeli citizens to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

The security service has apparently been carrying out the operation without the benefit of professional medical advice and is not beneficial at the current stage when the virus is widespread and most Israelis are largely confined to their homes, the group claimed.

In a letter to Knesset Intelligence and Secret Service Subcommittee chairman Gabi Ashkenazi, the organization expressed concern over the Shin Bet’s surveillance of members of the public through the use of technology such as cellphone localization to determine who came in contact with carriers of the virus so they can be notified to go into quarantine. The lack of involvement of an expert in public health epidemiology leaves the Shin Bet’s approach open to “the substantial possibility of various errors due to the absence of professional judgment,” the medical organization stated.

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Ashkenazi, who is a former Israeli army chief of staff, decided to convene his subcommittee on Friday morning to examine the government’s decision to enlist the Shin Bet in efforts to combat the coronavirus epidemic. The committee session is to be conducted by videoconferencing with representatives of the health care system, the Justice Ministry, the attorney general, the National Security Council and the police, in addition to human rights groups that have petitioned the High Court challenging the Shin Bet operation.

There is special legislation authorizing the Shin Bet to track people who have come in contact with carriers of the virus so they can be advised to go into quarantine.

“We have several objections,” Prof. Hagai Levine, the chairman of the Association of Public Health Physicians told TheMarker, Haaretz’s business daily. “The Health Ministry’s guidelines define close contact [with a carrier] as a distance of less than 2 meters [6.5 feet] for more than 15 minutes and these are stringent guidelines.”

Levine claimed that it is not accepted practice around the world to put people in quarantine who have passed a coronavirus carrier on the street. “There are already more than 50,000 carriers in isolation in Israel, and most of the population is in lockdown in any event,” he said, asserting that efforts at tracking need to be calibrated properly.

Representatives of the public physicians’ group claim that the use of cellular technology to identify people who were in proximity to a carrier diagnosed during the prior 14 days is not the correct approach. The World Health Organization, they said, recommends focusing on those who have come in contact with a carrier from four days prior to the appearance of symptoms of illness.

The members of the public physicians’ group also questioned the need for the involvement of the Shin Bet when the coronavirus is already widespread in Israel and when most of the public is largely confined to their homes and are advised to maintain social distancing.

“Today we don’t need to investigate every patient,” Levine said. “We are already in a [widespread] outbreak. The Shin Bet’s approach is not collecting the right information. The criteria are not correct and there is no professional [involved]. This only causes harm by needlessly sidelining essential people and everyone is in quarantine in any event. Instead of investing in what is required – investigation teams, lab testing and protective gear for staff – they are constantly busy with geolocation.”

Prof. Hagai Levine
Emil Salman

The involvement of the Shin Bet is also damaging the confidence of the public, which in turn makes it harder to address the epidemic, Levine claimed. “They needed to adopt the South Korean model, in which people voluntarily downloaded an app from the beginning,” he said. “At this stage, there’s a need to focus on epidemiological investigations to find the sources of an outbreak, particularly in vulnerable places such as old-age homes and hospitals. We need to go from personal protection to regional protection.”