As Israel races to quickly find ways to contain the spread of COVID-19, including controversial population surveillance tactics, it should look to learn and cooperate with Asian countries like Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan that have already used similar measures successfully.
On March 22, Israel's Health Ministry launched a new voluntary app called "The Shield" ("HaMagen" in Hebrew) to trace confirmed COVID-19 cases and notify those who have potentially been in contact with them. So far, despite some false positives, the app is presented by the Health Ministry as being safe in terms of privacy protections.
This latest measure follows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's more dramatic and less transparent push to allow the Shin Bet to employ counter-terrorism measures to track coronavirus patients. This is the first time such measures are targeting the Israeli public, and they appear to be occurring without sufficient parliamentary oversight. The lack of a fully functioning government and parliament further weakens the normal checks and balances that apply in these situations.
Several Asian countries have developed electronic surveillance measures in order to help contain the spread of coronavirus. Having learned from the 2003 SARS outbreak, and again with MERS in 2015, these countries with close ties to mainland China had pandemic response plans already in place, including as much internal systematic coordination as possible.
Lauded by the World Health Organization for its emergency preparedness, Singapore has been extremely successful in tracing potential virus transmission with 2,299 confirmed cases and only nine deaths as of April 12, over two months after its first confirmed case. In early January, the Singaporean government launched a contact tracing website in order to track the spread of the virus via extensive analysis of the network of confirmed cases. In addition, a voluntary Trace Together app, developed by government tech agencies in partnership with the Ministry of Health, works by exchanging short-distance Bluetooth signals between phones to identify people who were in physical proximity to a confirmed case. Records of such encounters are stored locally on each user’s phone and then deleted after 21 days. All such data collection is governed by transparency and privacy safeguards aimed at protecting app users.
On March 25, Singapore announced its intention to make the Trace Together app freely available to developers around the world.
The Singaporean system has proven effective. A recent study published by the University of Oxford claims that 90 percent of the cases flagged by the tracing system led to an individual who eventually became symptomatic. The Singapore model aims to slow down the infection rate as much as possible in order to allow healthcare professionals a chance to provide assistance and to avoid overwhelming the medical infrastructure. After delaying total lockdown as long as possible, Singapore announced enhanced measures to fight the continuous rise in new cases as well as prevent a second wave of infection expected to hit Asia in the near future.
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In South Korea, with a population of just over 50 million people, the number of confirmed COVID-19 patients is the second highest in Asia with 10,512 total cases and 214 deaths. The government has, however, been able to provide accurate case reports due to widespread testing efforts. In cooperation with the South Korean Ministry of Health and Korean Center for Disease Control (KCDC), civilian software developers have successfully implemented voluntary apps, such as Corona 100m and CoronaMap, which post data made available by the Ministry of Health, including the date a patient was diagnosed with COVID-19, as well as their nationality, age, gender and whereabouts of possible virus transmission. The information is then cross referenced with KCDC investigations, including patient interviews, CCTV footage, credit card records, and mobile GPS surveillance.
The Corona 100m app, initially intended to track cases of coronavirus imported into South Korea, now has over 1 million downloads, and has proven instrumental in aiding citizens to avoid potentially contaminated areas, despite some privacy concerns and a number of cases in which the released information was used for online harassment of patients.
Taiwan, cited by Netanyahu as a model for Israel’s tracking regime, has been actively working with its National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA), integrating it with the immigration and customs database in order to generate real-time alerts for possible case identification. The Taiwanese model combines government databases with real time GPS cell phone tracking in order to create an "electric fence" intended to monitor phone signals of those in home quarantine. Based on this information, the Taiwanese police also make twice daily phone calls to ensure quarantine regulations are followed. As of April 12, over two months after the first reported case, the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control reported 388 confirmed COVID-19 cases with six deaths.
While similar in essence to the measures currently taken by Israeli authorities, a key difference between the Taiwanese model and Israel's current trajectory is the widespread use of civic technology, which boosts public morale and allows for cooperation with government efforts. Rather than utilizing a top-down, opaque method of surveillance, the Taiwanese success is largely credited to civic participation and open-source technology.
One important lesson from the experience of all three countries is that tracking measures should be employed in tandem with other measures such as extensive testing, data analysis and enforcement. Another important factor seems to be the relatively high level of confidence that the public has in the government to deploy these technologies sensibly.
These models of electronic surveillance have already proven to be the most successful in combating the spread of the coronavirus in the world to date. They are likely to become even more important as we try to gradually move out of quarantine and resume normal life.
Israel should urgently establish active technological cooperation with the Asian countries that have been on the front lines of the battle against the epidemic, in order to understand and use their hi-tech capabilities. This, combined with Israel’s own advanced technological capacity, could be important not only in battling the spread of the virus effectively but also in enabling a faster return to normal life.
Dr. Gedaliah Afterman is Head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. He previously served as an Australian foreign service officer working on Asian regional security issues and a diplomat at the Australian Embassy in Beijing.
Maya Shabi is a Visiting Research Fellow at AEI Asia Policy Program at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.