Netanyahu Weighs Renewing Shin Bet Tracking of Coronavirus Patients as Cases in Israel Rise

Legislation allowing the security service to track confirmed patients' cellphones to identify those with whom they came into contact has been frozen since early June

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Masked Israelis walk through Jerusalem, June 18, 2020.
Masked Israelis walk through Jerusalem, June 18, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

As the number of coronavirus cases in Israel grows, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering resuming measures to allow the Shin Bet secret service to track confirmed and suspected cases, sources familiar with the issue told Haaretz.

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The proposed legislation would let the government use the security service's geolocation capabilities to identify locations where confirmed patients have been and other people they may have come in contact with, based on their cellphone data.

According to a report released Saturday by the National Center for Information and Knowledge in the Battle Against the Coronavirus, Israel is entering its second wave of the coronavirus outbreak. The government agency called for more aggressive measures to curb the spread of the virus.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said on Saturday that should cases keep rising, Netanyahu "will ask to reexamine the use of digital measures."

Legislation on employing Shin Bet tracking has been frozen since early June, and the government is still in the process of seeking civilian alternatives.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kish said: “The only readily available automated tool to cut infection chains is in the hands of the Shin Bet.” He called for passing the proposed legislation in an expedited manner, which would “allow using the tool to save lives and money.”

Earlier this month, sources said Shin Bet Chief Nadav Argaman told ministers on a Knesset panel that his defense agency should not be involved in what officials present called a controversial civilian issue. The organization's capabilities, Argaman said, were no longer needed, seeing as the pandemic is under control in Israel. Furthermore, the Shin Bet has been concerned that some of the technologies it uses could be exposed.

It was Argaman's opinion, according to sources who attended the meeting, that led to the ministers' decision to put the bill on hold. The Shin Bet chief proposed using civilian tools, like the "HaMagen" app, instead of the agency's technology, to track the spread of the coronavirus.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which petitioned the High Court of Justice in a bid to block Shin Bet tracking, released a statement in early June saying, “There’s no place in a democratic society to employ mass, constant surveillance against innocent civilians. This is a slippery and dangerous slope.”

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