Israeli Government Tells Court It May Reduce Shin Bet Role in Contact Tracing

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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People walk at Tel Aviv's Carmel Market, December 14, 2020.
People walk at Tel Aviv's Carmel Market, December 14, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

The government is weighing the possibility of reducing the Shin Bet’s role in contact tracing to control the spread of the coronavirus, the state said in response to a Supreme Court petition.

The state said a cabinet committee debated a reduction in the use of the Shin Bet phone app in light of “preliminary signs that the efficiency of this tool may be on the decline.” The government is considering the use of the app in instances where the infected person fails to cooperate with contact tracers or other unusual cases.

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The state noted that the committee had recommended at the beginning of the month to extend permits to trace contacts for only 14 days, although the law allows a 21-day maximum. During these past two weeks, it said, “The Health Ministry, Shin Bet and National Security Council will put together an authorized position so that the Shin Bet tools may be used more effectively and with a clear focus, suited to the overall developments, including the aim of cutting the chain of infection.”

The government has accepted a recommendation to extend the use of the app until Thursday, December 17, the state added.

In light of these developments the state asked for an extension of the deadline to reply to a petition on the issue until December 21, in light of the possibility that a debate may be held by Wednesday about changing the use of the app, and a cabinet decision regarding the extension of use of the app, which may affect the response it would deliver.

The petitioners, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah and Physicians for Human Rights, asked for the cancellation of a law that allows Shin Bet monitoring.

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

A State Comptroller’s report from October said the Shin Bet app is not effective enough compared to epidemiological investigations done by the Health Ministry. The report found that only 3.5 percent of people found by the app and forced into isolation turned out to have actually been carriers of the coronavirus, while with epidemiological surveys, the success rate was 24 percent.

The report also criticized the government for allowing the Shin Bet to use cell phone apps from mid-March, before any formal vote was taken on the issue, and that the procedure wasn’t properly monitored.

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