Shin Bet Tracking Least Invasive Option in Coronavirus Fight, Health Ministry Says

Alternatives to Shin Bet tracking of coronavirus patients in Israel were all rejected, as Health Ministry argues private firms 'were more harmful to privacy'

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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A man using a cellphone in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, central Israel, during the coronavirus outbreak, April 10, 2020.
A man using a cellphone in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, central Israel, during the coronavirus outbreak, April 10, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

In its attempts to use technology to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the Shin Bet security service was the most respectful of privacy, Israel's Health Ministry told the High Court of Justice.

The statement came in response to a petition filed by attorney Shahar Ben-Meir, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Arab rights group Adalah and the journalists’ association, stating that monitoring by the Shin Bet and the police violated the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty.

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The Health Ministry informed the court that it had contacted various companies, even before Defense Minister Naftali Bennett proposed cooperation with private spyware firm NSO. However, the ministry decided to stay with the Shin Bet option because “the alternatives checked into were more harmful to privacy, with a relative lack of efficiency compared to the alternative found in the end.”

The alternatives, the Health Ministry told the court, involved collecting data from a cellphone app, as well as from cellphone and credit card companies and security agencies. The ministry said it had not found any country that had received efficient service from one of the private firms it had looked into.

Another reason the Health Ministry rejected other companies was “their refusal to pass on the technological tools for the use of the state, separate from the company.” This, the ministry told the court, could also result in violations of privacy.

Bennett brought in NSO, which has been accused of severely infringing on human rights in foreign countries, to build a system that would classify Israelis according to their risk of contracting the coronavirus, based on data collected by the Shin Bet.

The Justice Ministry objected to the plan, citing legal impediments to transferring personal information about civilians from a security agency to a private company, and expressed doubt that the method would be more efficient that the means used by the state.

The state told the court that, of the Israelis in isolation who were checked by police, 12 percent had violated the conditions of their quarantine. As of Saturday morning, the state’s representative told the High Court, about 9,500 people were in isolation, and that since the outbreak of the pandemic, 177,379 people had been required to go into quarantine.

The police had so far checked the compliance of more than 86,000 people in isolation, two thirds of whom were checked by phone. Up to Friday, the police had issued 22,951 fines for violating Health Ministry directives, of which 181 were for violation of required isolation.

“Under the circumstances of a shared national and global struggle to prevent an uncontrolled outbreak of a pandemic, it is difficult to say that patients would feel disparaged or humiliated by the very collecting and processing of information about their movements for the 14 days prior to their diagnosis," state prosecutors Shosh Shmueli and Reuven Eidelman said in an official response to the petition. "Especially when the process is intended to save lives and is strictly limited by regulations restricting access to the information, its deletion, etc., [patients are unlikely to reach] the point they would claim that their dignity had been violated.”

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