Attorney General Approves Cyber Tech to Track Coronavirus Patients

Shin Bet says it won't track people in quarantine, but doesn't mention those who came in contact with known coronavirus patients

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Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at an event in Jerusalem, December 18, 2020.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at an event in Jerusalem, December 18, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Saturday that Israel seeks to use technological means usually used for counter-terror to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, as the country saw diagnosed cases spike by 50 in one day.

The announcement was made as part of a new set of directives issued by the government that will effectively see the country grind to a halt while it attempts to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

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Shortly after the announcement, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit approved the use of cyber measures to track patients' phones. The Justice Ministry, responding to a Haaretz query, said the directive was legal under the regulations that were put in place to fight the virus.

A representative told Haaretz that the ministry's legal opinion would be "forwarded to the Shin Bet security service, and brought before the government on Sunday."

The prime minister called COVID-19 an "invisible enemy," and said “all means would be used to fight the spread of the coronavirus, including technological means, digital means, and other means that until today I have refrained from using among the civilian population.”

According to sources familiar with the policy, Netanyahu is primarily referring to the use of cellular geolocalization to verify the past whereabouts of patients that have tested positive for COVID-19, or to check if they had violated a quarantine order. Some other forms of digital surveillance may also be used.

Admitting that the use of these tools could constitute a violation of privacy, the prime minister argued that “it’s an effective tool to locate the virus and isolate it,” he said, “instead of isolating an entire country.”

The prime minister cited the success of this kind of strategy in Taiwan, but according to local sources, electronic tracking of patients is done through dedicated devices, and not private phones.

The Shin Bet security service, which was asked to contribute its capabilities, said it was considering it "as part of the national effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic."

"It should be emphasized that the intention is not to use said capabilities for the enforcement or monitoring of people currently in isolation," the Shin Bet added, but did not refer to people who may have been in contact with known patients.

The Privacy Protection Authority opposed the move, claiming it was too extreme, but Israel's judiciary reacted quickly and positively to the prime minister's announcement.

Israel Police, which will be tasked with operating the technology under the supervision of the Justice Ministry, clarified Saturday night that they did not intend to pinpoint cellphone locations of people with the coronavirus.

“We do not intend to track people and we do not intend to pinpoint their locations,” the official said.

Netanyahu giving a statement in Jerusalem, March 14, 2020Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

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