Israel Secretly Sought to Expand Shin Bet Tracking of Coronavirus Patients Before Court Ruling

A meeting to expand the surveillance took place before the court ruled that the Shin Bet’s involvement in battling the coronavirus must be set down in legislation

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Israelis standing in line at Ikea, Rishon Letzion, April 26, 2020.
Israelis standing in line at Ikea, Rishon Letzion, April 26, 2020. Credit: Eyal Toueg

A classified meeting Sunday of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s subcommittee on intelligence and secret services discussed the Shin Bet security services’ monitoring of coronavirus patients before the High Court of Justice was to rule on the issue.

The meeting took place before the court ruled Sunday evening that the Shin Bet’s involvement in battling the coronavirus must be set down in legislation.

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During the meeting the head of the ministerial committee on the issue, Minister Yuval Steinitz, presented a National Security Council report that argued that there was no civilian alternative to the Shin Bet surveillance. Among other things, the report stated that the primary alternative would be monitoring by NSO group, an Israeli Surveillance company, to which Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit objected because it would undermine residents’ privacy. It was also argued that there is a huge number of people who use kosher phones that cannot download apps, and that this was an impediment.

During the hearing those present sought to broaden and extend the term of the Shin Bet’s authority before the court blocked this.

The High Court’s decision was made in response to petitions against the emergency regulations that gave the Shin Bet and the police the authority to track people through their cellphones as part of the effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The High Court ruled that the state must pass relevant legislation within the next few weeks.

Court President Esther Hayut said in the ruling that if the Shin Bet’s involvement was to continue beyond April 30, this Thursday, “There is a need to codify its authority to do this [tracking] as part of appropriate primary legislation, such as a temporary order. This is in light of the fact that the method chosen by the government as part of its authorization decision is a means that deals a serious blow to the constitutional right to privacy, and this shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

In this context, the ruling states that, “The choice to make use of the state’s preventative security agency to follow those who do not seek to do [the state] harm, without the subjects of the surveillance giving their permission, raises an extremely serious difficulty and a suitable alternative should be sought that fulfills the principles of privacy protection.”

The High Court also ruled that to protect journalists’ sources, a journalist who is diagnosed with the coronavirus must give consent to having his or her personal details transmitted to the Shin Bet, lest sources he had met with be identified. The Health Ministry is to keep a list of press-card-carrying journalists for this purpose. If a journalist doesn’t want his details given over, he can turn to the courts within 24 hours to get a restraining order against his details being given to the Shin Bet. During the epidemiological investigation, the journalist must commit to informing on his own any sources who had been in his physical presence in the two weeks before his diagnosis.

The petitioners, attorney Shahar Ben Meir, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights and the Journalists Association, argued that Shin Bet and police surveillance undermine the right to dignity as set down in the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. The state counter-argued, through attorneys Shosh Shmueli and Reuven Eidelman, that the surveillance was aimed at saving lives, and that in circumstances of a pandemic, “It’s hard to say that a sick person will feel ashamed or humiliated by the collection and processing of the information.”

The head of public health services in the Health Ministry, Prof. Siegal Sidetzki, said at the hearing held on the petitions two weeks ago that the Health Ministry was thinking of significantly broadening the use of Shin Bet surveillance to include the second circle of contacts – people who had been in contact with someone who had been in contact with a confirmed patient.

Two weeks ago the state had also told the High Court that it was considering giving the Shin Bet additional assignments in an effort to improve the assistance given to the Health Ministry and to make it possible to relax the restrictions on movement. Haaretz learned that one potential new assignment was to use the information the Shin Bet had already collected to rank areas based on rate of infection, so it could be determined which areas could have their routines restored.

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