Watchdog: Tracking by Israel's Security Service Is Invasive, Ineffective in COVID Fight

Yaniv Kubovich
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Israelis wearing face masks sit on their cell phones in Tel Aviv, September 2020.
Israelis wearing face masks sit on their cell phones in Tel Aviv, September 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Yaniv Kubovich

The Israeli Shin Bet security agency's high-tech coronavirus contact tracing is less effective than the Health Ministry’s low-tech questionnaires, the state comptroller’s study of the Shin Bet’s use of its technological capabilities found. 

A report issued monday found numerous deficiencies in Shin Bet's performance, while also criticizing Israel's political leadership for allowing the agency to track cellphone users for this purpose, starting in the middle of March, before formal permission was granted, and without appropriate supervision after the use of mobile positioning was authorized.

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The study found that the Health Ministry's questionnaires uncover more infected individuals than the Shin Bet’s contact tracing, while at the same time resulting in fewer unnecessary quarantine orders. According to the comptroller, just 3.5 percent of the people quarantined by the Shin Bet later tested positive for the virus, compared to 24 percent for those who were quarantined as a result of Health Ministry patient questionnaires.

Not only are too many people forced to quarantine needlessly while surrendering their personal privacy, but the larger purpose of breaking the chain of transmission is not being achieved, the comptroller found.

The report quotes the cabinet members overseeing the Shin Bet’s use of geolocation to fight the pandemic as believing that the digital surveillance is insufficiently accurate for the purpose of contact tracing. It says the Shin Bet warned in July, five days after its mobile tracking services were reintroduced to combat the second wave of infections, that “the entire economy is paying a heavy price and the agency’s tool is in effect becoming an instrument of the Health Ministry to place citizens in lockdown.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, January 2020. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

In a written response, the Shin Bet said that most of the data in the report concerns the period up to August 8 and therefore is largely irrelevant today. The statement cites a Health Ministry white paper issued Sunday that “determined unequivocally that the Shin Bet’s activity tracked down tens of thousands of infected individuals, making a critical contribution to breaking the chain of transmission and saving many lives.”

The agency said its cellphone tracking was no less effective than the patient questionnaires, adding that according to the Health Ministry white paper, “the Shin Bet located 35.8 percent of all patients, preventing the infection of 40,546 people, 860 severe COVID-19 cases and 304 deaths.”

The comptroller’s report also noted that the Shin Bet violated protocols meant to guard the privacy of the individuals it tracked, including by conducting an unauthorized study aimed at improving the geolocation of people who did not come into contact with infected individuals but had been in the same places as large numbers of patients. In addition, in many cases the Shin Bet did not erase information it collected on citizens within 14 days, in accordance with regulations, in what the comptroller called a “disproportional infringement of the right to privacy.”

The Shin Bet said in response that its technological activity is automated and rigorously protects against the exposure of personal information while observing the law regarding the erasure of the data from its systems. “The four cases mentioned in the comptroller’s report under ‘activity errors,’ out of hundreds of thousands of [cases], occurred during the initial stage of operation and stemmed from technical failures (automatic backups that were deleted immediately) or for the purpose of research and development to increase effectiveness. In practice, these did not result in privacy violations... [and] were reported voluntarily and in real time to the attorney general.”

The Shin Bet also told the comptroller’s research team that the security service’s contribution to the anti-pandemic effort “exposed to some degree the capabilities of the agency, potentially damaging” its ability to carry out its intended mission.

In a written response to the comptroller’s report, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said it had always argued that the Shin Bet’s tool was inappropriate for this purpose, and now the state comptroller also casts doubt on the efficacy of the Shin Bet’s mobile positioning to find people who came in contact with verified COVID-19 carriers, in light of the very low (3.5) percentage of patients among those quarantined.

“It is concerning to learn from the report that the use of the Shin Bet is becoming increasingly established and that the Shin Bet intends to create a permanent unit for contact tracing ... for what was supposed to be only temporary. ... Also worrying is the fact that the Shin Bet began tracking people even before this was approved by the cabinet and that despite the stringent restrictions of the legislature, some of the information was not erased and the Shin Bet also tracked individuals who were neither infected nor in contact with a patient,” ACRI said.

Continuing, the civil-rights organization called attention to the Shin Bet’s admission that the inaccuracy of the surveillance technology, which during the second wave of infection placed more than 750,000 Israelis in quarantine, caused great economic damage.

“We join the comptroller’s call to the cabinet to reexamine the need for the continued use of the Shin Bet and... to immediately end the use of this tool in favor of alternatives,” ACRI said in its statement.

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