'Infringement of Democracy': Knesset Legal Adviser Slams Phone Tracking to Fight Coronavirus

Response to petition against controversial move shows how security services hid emergency regulation from legislative oversight

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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A person walking with a mask, Qalandiya Checkpoint, West Bank, March 18, 2020.
A person walking with a mask, Qalandiya Checkpoint, West Bank, March 18, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The Knesset's legal adviser said Wednesday the government's plan to use mobile-phone location technology to track people infected with the coronavirus is “a serious infringement of democratic values,” despite the government's citing of an emergency situation.

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The statement by the legal adviser's office, headed by Eyal Yinon, came in response to a petition to the High Court of Justice by attorney Shachar Ben-Meir against the plan. 

Attorney Avital Sompolinsky, representing the legal adviser's office, said the government must present the Knesset with a bill that would provide a legal basis for use of the technology by the Shin Bet security service and the police. This would happen once the Knesset Arrangements Committee and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee are formed

The government decision was brought in front of the Knesset Subcommittee on Secret Services, headed by Kahol Lavan co-leader and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, but with too little time and too little information for it to give an opinion. It was forced to leave it for the next parliament, which was inaugurated on Monday, but is currently at a standstill. 

“Use of emergency regulations should be considered a last resort,” Sompolinsky wrote. “It is regrettable that... the matter was brought to the committee in a timetable that did not allow the committee to hold a real discussion," she added. 

According to Sompolinsky, the subcommittee was also hampered in its discussions because the Shin Bet security service classified the text of the emergency regulation as “top secret." This prevented the the Knesset's legal adviser to disseminate the regulation.  

The government is expected to submit its response to the petition today and the hearing on the matter is expected to take place tomorrow morning at the Supreme Court before a panel of three justices: President Esther Hayut, Hanan Melcer and Noam Solberg.

On Wednesday, the justices rejected a request by Haaretz and Globes to broadcast the proceedings live so as to avoid a large gathering of people at the hearing. The court said that 30 people could be present at the hearing. 

Early on Tuesday, the cabinet approved emergency regulations allowing the Shin Bet and police, separately, to collect cellular and other personal data of people diagnosed, or suspected of being infected with the coronavirus. By approving the move via a special telephone survey, the ministers circumvented the Knesset, which did not have the chance to discuss the move, even though the Justice Ministry pledged that it would.

The 22nd Knesset, in plenary, January 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said later on Tuesday that it would have been preferable to approve the regulations by means of a cabinet decision that was then approved by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, but because of the urgency, it was decided to approve them as emergency regulations. 

On Wednesday, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a senior member of Netanyahu's Likud, announced he was postponing the decision on forming Knesset committees until Monday. This means a continuing halt to the activity of the Knesset and the committees, which were supposed to have oversight of the government’s measures in dealing with the coronavirus crisis, including the cell phone tracking and the economic crisis.

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