Analysis

With No Checks on Power, Israel Also Wants Shin Bet to Map Coronavirus Hot Spots

No one responsible for guaranteeing transparency in using the secret service has dared step out of the black box. With so much as stake, they're only shooting themselves in the foot

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Israeli army and police forces inspect drivers in Jerusalem, April 8, 2020.
Israeli army and police forces inspect drivers in Jerusalem, April 8, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

The more you have, the more you want. After the Shin Bet was authorized to use anti-terrorism technology to trace people who were near coronavirus patients, the state wants to assign additional pandemic-fighting measures to the security service, without specifying them. It’s as if the virus were a dangerous terrorist who’s listening in on the deliberations; as if the target being monitored were a cruel enemy that must be defeated rather than the Israeli public, which has the right to know all the details.

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The state told the High Court of Justice Tuesday that an extraordinary ministerial committee is considering assigning additional tasks to the Shin Bet to help contain the pandemic. The statement came in response to a petition filed by attorney Shachar Ben Meir, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights and the Union of Journalists in Israel.

The committee was set up to monitor the efficacy of the tracking mechanism in the wake of public criticism. But the response to the court makes it clear that rather than curbing the use of covert means to track the movements of law-abiding citizens, the committee “is considering adding assignments to the Shin Bet as part of its aid to the Health Ministry in containing the spread of the coronavirus.”

The cabinet, the Shin Bet and the attorney general are refusing to provide details on the proposed additional tasks. The statement to the court said only that the goal was “to make it possible to continue to act to slow the spread of the virus while partially lifting the restrictions on freedom of movement.” If the justices are curious, the state’s legal advisers propose the oldest trick in the book: an ex parte hearing that would let them whisper the details into the justices’ ears without having to disclose them to the public.

Haaretz has learned that this deep, dark secret amounts to the addition of another layer of analysis to the information that’s already being collected about us, with the aim of mapping areas where restrictions could, or could not, be lifted. That accompanies the army’s proposal to divide the country into color-coded zones based on the incidence of COVID-19 in each.

Based on previously published details about the Shin Bet’s use of special means, we can imagine an enormous database with information about every person in Israel and in the territories that’s meaningless unless it's asked a specific question. For example: Who was near a COVID-19 patient at a specific time or, with the new proposal, what’s the expected infection rate in a particular area and should the lockdown be lifted there or not?

Forget the mistaken notion that only cellular geolocation is the only issue. That’s what the police do to monitor people who are supposed to be in isolation. The Shin Bet’s tools are much more sophisticated. Within the organization it’s called “The Tool,” as journalist Ronen Bergman has disclosed in Yedioth Ahronoth, but it’s more easily understood as a smart search engine that operates on a vast trove of cellphone data from all of us.

In other places and in other times, the news of a “tool” methodically gathering such information on everyone would have rocked the country, but Israel isn’t the United States, and this revelation, unlike those by Edward Snowden, didn’t make enough waves. Maybe it’s because we’re so used to the idea that in Israel, security is above all else. Including individual rights.

If the new tool doesn’t constitute an additional violation of our already regularly compromised right to privacy, but will only be used to map areas and not individuals for the sole purpose of returning us to normal faster, most Israelis will probably welcome it. For precisely this reason, the secrecy around it is questionable, to say the least. There’s no reason not to explain the matter with complete transparency so that people can judge for themselves whether it’s justified – preferably before, not after, the decision is made and they turn into laboratory rats.

But in a country where the establishment sees everything through military binoculars, it’s common to treat everything regarding the Shin Bet as a state secret. The organization, which was dragged against its will into the battle against the coronavirus, now fears the disclosure of all the capabilities of its special means. The result is a complete absence of transparency over an issue that’s completely civilian in nature and where transparency is essential to gain the public’s trust and compliance.

No one responsible for guaranteeing this transparency – the cabinet members on the committee and the representatives of the Shin Bet and the attorney general – has dared step out of the black box and explain these things to the public in good faith. They’re only shooting themselves in the foot: The lack of information increases the mistrust and the sense that draconian tools are being used covertly.

A further High Court hearing against the police and Shin Bet’s use of tracking is scheduled for Thursday at 11:30 A.M., with the aim of examining whether additional Knesset supervision is sufficient to let them continue. Ironically, it will also be the first High Court session to be broadcast. The height of transparency in the face of its absence.

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