Knesset Panel Extends Shin Bet Coronavirus Tracking by Another Three Weeks

Data shown by public health chief shows 7% of those tracked because they were in contact with an infected person were infected themselves

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Pedestrians walk in Haifa on May 4, 2020.
Pedestrians walk in Haifa on May 4, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Knesset’s secret service subcommittee approved a three-week extension on Tuesday of emergency regulations permitting the Shin Bet to trace people ill with the coronavirus so they can locate those with whom they may have been in contact.

The government had asked for a six-week extension of the measure on Monday, pending the completion of a legislative proposal as ordered by the High Court in a ruling last week.

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Professor Siegal Sadetzki, the head of public health at the Health Ministry, and Raz Nizri, the deputy attorney general, presented data at the session showing that 5,516 people who turned out to have coronavirus were located via tracing, 3,835 of them by the Shin Bet. They said that seven percent of those who received a message saying they were near a confirmed case were found to be infected as well.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat said in the debate that continuing the tracking was essential despite the decline in cases “because the potential for contagion has actually risen.

Israeli police forces wearing protective gear in Jerusalem, April 6, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“We think that at this time despite the good data, it is precisely now when we need this tool to permit swift and surgical measures to break the chain of contagion and permit the people to go on with their lives,” he said.

Ben-Shabbat said the government has no other means by which to do this: “We are continuing to look for alternatives and using the Shin Bet for this purpose is not our first choice. If we can find a tool to answer this need, we will definitely adopt it.”

Two memebrs fo the committee – Yesh Atid-Telem leader Yair Lapid and Yisrael Beitenu lawmaker Eli Avidar – asked  why the government was seeking this extension while the number of coronavirus cases was declining. Lapid said the data shown by Sadetzki show that 93 percent of citizens traced were healthy and their privacy was therefore invaded for no reason.

Lapid said “the original request was made in March based on the data from March. The prime minister spoke then of tens of thousands of people dying.” 

“You say the data isn’t so bad,” he told Ben-Shabbat, “but that in order to prevent a bad situation later we can use the appropriate measures. In Israel there are many traffic accidents. If the Shin Bet could trace the speed of every car, would that justify tracking each and every driver?”

The situation is relatively good because radical measures were taken that don’t need to be taken as a matter of routine. Therefore, [the tracking] is rendered all the more necessary,” Ben-Shabbat said.

“I don’t think we need to use this tool when there are others, we understand the problems with using it. We have to minimize the violations of privacy. This is a decision we have discussed for many hours,” he added.

Sadetzki told Lapid: “We are talking about a genie that’s out of the bottle. We can’t move backwards. Everyone knows the health system’s limits – we have a problem.”

She added that the problem today is different from at the outset of the pandemic, as it is hard to tell where another outbreak will occur: “We knew to close the gates to other countries and for people returning from abroad to stay at home and seek an examination if they came down with symptoms. Today we’re in a situation where the spread of the illness is less. There will be less capability to find a source and we are liable to detect it only after it has spread too much.”

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