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Israel's Security Service Opposes Tracking Citizens to Fight Coronavirus, but Government at a Loss

Cabinet found no solution to limit the virus’s spread, so comprehensive digital tracking is the plan

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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People wearing masks in Jerusalem's Old City on June 24, 2020.
People wearing masks in Jerusalem's Old City on June 24, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The cabinet convened Wednesday for an urgent discussion on resuming the Shin Bet security service’s comprehensive digital tracking of coronavirus victims and those with whom they’d come into contact. With the support of Kahol Lavan, it was decided to bring legislation to this effect to the Knesset for a preliminary vote, presumably next week.

After a month of empty talk, in which no relevant steps were taken to halt the renewed spread of the virus – like improving the testing process and upgrading the epidemiological research to cut off chains of infection – the government is choosing to focus on those aspects that are comfortable for it, like blaming the public, increasing fines and renewing the invasive monitoring. The ground was being paved for this throughout the last week, through the criticism of the Shin Bet and the Supreme Court justices, whose purism is supposedly preventing an effective battle against the disease.

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It seems that Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman has been in an uncomfortable position since the start of the crisis in March. He was never enthusiastic abut this mission, but in the absence of any other immediate alternative, he grabbed an oar and started rowing. Two weeks ago he took advantage of the temporary drop in morbidity to stop the project. Now he will apparently be enlisted again to perform this tracking against his will.

Police enforce the wearing of masks in line with coronavirus restrictions, Jerusalem, June 21, 2020
Police enforce the wearing of masks in line with coronavirus restrictions, Jerusalem, June 21, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Based on conversations with those who’ve attended the recent meetings and the recordings broadcast by Channel 12’s Amit Segal of Argaman’s remarks at the coronavirus cabinet meeting (itself an unusual thing), one can try to analyze the Shin Bet’s position. The organization’s objections touch on two primary points. The first is the desire to keep the service away from controversial political questions, like how much to invade residents’ privacy while diverting resources from its primary mission, which is foiling terror and espionage. The second point is that the very use by the Shin Bet of its tracking technology will expose sensitive information about the capabilities it has for carrying out its primary mission during routine times.

As with the question of Military Intelligence’s analyzing the information, which raised a storm a few days ago, the coronavirus crisis has exposed the Health Ministry’s weakness in researching the chains of infection. During the earliest meetings it was already clear to the ministers that the ministry was drowning under the burden of its responsibilities and couldn’t locate all the new patients and those who’d come in contact with them. At the instruction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Shin Bet enlisted for this mission out of an understanding that there was an urgent national need, that there was no other application available to use and that this solution would be temporary, until the Health Ministry could come up with an alternative arrangement.

The arrangement was that the Shin Bet would examine the cell phone data of every patient after being identified by the Health Ministry, but would focus only on the cell phone number and not on the person’s identity. The process was described to the ministers as “automatic, with no human involvement,” with the broader data revealed only to a small number of Shin Bet employees.

What actually happened was that the process was undermined because the Health Ministry, for two months, had difficulty managing the testing procedure. An overly long time passed between when a patient came to be tested and the answer was received, which made it hard to reach all the people he was in contact with in time.

The Shin Bet offered the Health Ministry assistance in setting up a civilian tracking mechanism, but to this day the ministry hasn’t taken up the offer. The civilian application the ministry developed, called Hamagen (which the person voluntarily downloads to his cell phone), turned out to be too complicated and was rife with errors. There’s hope that the updated version, Hamagen 2, will yield better results, but it will apparently be a few months before it’s ready.

During the discussions, mention was made of civilian companies capable of developing an alternative application. But to an outsider, the entire process seems plagued by foot-dragging, with no determination to reach a solution. Recently, the new intelligence minister, Eli Cohen, was tasked with examining the issue. So far, it doesn’t look like any decisions have been made. But given the rise in infections, the ministers are pressing to resume using the Shin Bet, even though the number of patients placed on ventilators, or intubated (around 30 in recent days) is far from the scenarios (about 2,000 intubated patients) discussed by the coronavirus cabinet this week.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, June 16, 2020
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, June 16, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The circumstances got more difficult when the question was brought to the High Court of Justice. The justices ruled that a move as extreme as tracking residents’ movements required Knesset legislation. Meanwhile, the media has published plenty of information about the way this “tool,” the Shin Bet’s cellular tracking, is used. During routine times it allows for the most in-depth monitoring of the locations and actions of suspected terrorists and security offenders.

The Shin Bet was afraid that a detailed debate of a Knesset bill on locating patients would reveal other sensitive details, making it easier for terror groups to know what they are dealing with. There has already been information exposed that had been kept secret for years.

At the previous meeting, at which the leaked recording was made, Argaman told the ministers that the service was the country’s safety net if there’s an emergency situation and so long as there was no other solution. The public and the media are divided over the seriousness of the current situation, but the ministers tend to believe that we are again facing a real emergency.

Still, even now alternative solutions can be expedited that will not directly involve the security establishment. Israel has a wealth of technological capabilities that can be enlisted, so long as this is done under close and comprehensive legal oversight. In Wednesday’s cabinet meeting the Shin Bet’s legal adviser made three requests: To conduct the legislative process in the Knesset intelligence subcommittee, to reduce the exposure of the service’s capabilities; to shorten and streamline the Health Ministry’s process of contacting those people who were in close contact with a patient, and to continue to move quickly on developing a civilian app.

‘Unprecedented in democratic world’

The alternatives are discussed in several documents drawn up recently by experts in the field. A group of experts, among them Prof. Karine Nahon, attorney Haim Rabia and Prof. Michael Birnhack, sent a detailed letter this week to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, saying that the decision to use the Shin Bet is “unusual and unprecedented in the democratic world. Use of technology by the Shin Bet is a serious and continuous violation of the privacy of all the state’s citizens, since it requires constant monitoring of cellular signals and the pooling of the information into a huge database without the consent of those being tracked.”

They stated that the use of such an extreme tool leads to “a change in the balance of the relationship between the administration and the citizens in a democratic regime.” The letter writers suggest examining how effective using the Shin Bet is compared to civilian alternatives for contact tracing, how accurate it is and what ethical problems are involved in using the Shin Bet, or civilian companies, for this purpose.

The experts recommend examining technology that examines a person’s proximity to a coronavirus carrier for a time sufficient for infection, and doesn’t focus on the details of each person’s location. This method is based on Bluetooth technology found in every cell phone except for very old models.

In a different opinion written by Dr. Tehila Schwartz Altshuler and attorney Rachel Hershkowitz from the Israel Democracy Institute, the two argue, “The Shin Bet cannot be a replacement for a functioning and efficient testing system.” According to the two researchers, “From an analysis of the data to date, the Shin Bet has a 12 percent error rate and succeeded in locating fewer than three out of 10 patients. The use of the Shin Bet creates a false sense of security. It should be solely a tool that complements epidemiological investigations and a broad and efficient testing system.”

They write, “The use of cellular locating based on GPS as used by the Shin Bet is not accurate in closed areas, like multistory buildings and malls,” and there are other technologies that do better. The researchers suggest using civilian, voluntary apps, as is being done in Europe and the United States. They believe that GPS technology should only be used as another layer of confirmation when there’s concern that there’s been an error.

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