Knesset Gives Initial Approval for Comprehensive Digital Tracking by Security Service in Coronavirus Fight

'It could be that we’ll halt the illness and flatten the curve even before we finish the legislation, but we want to be in a position where we can use this tool if we choose,' Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says

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Pedestrians wearing masks are seen in Tel Aviv, May 21, 2020.
Pedestrians wearing masks are seen in Tel Aviv, May 21, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toga

The Knesset gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill authorizing the Shin Bet security service to track coronavirus cases and those in contact with them.

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The Knesset vote came hours after the cabinet approved the bill. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened the cabinet in the afternoon for an urgent meeting, given the rise in infections, with the support of Kahol Lavan.

The goal, Netanyahu told the cabinet, is “to locate those who were in close proximity to those who’ve been infected, or have been near those who are infecting others, so that they shouldn’t spread the disease. I’ve asked to expedite the development of the digital app aimed at achieving this goal. It will take time – weeks, hopefully not months. Until then, we are seeking to legislate the use of the Shin Bet’s digital tool. We are accompanying this examination with options to start and stop it. […] I hope that we won’t even need to use it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a press statement in Jerusalem, June 16, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Netanyahu added, “It could be that we’ll halt the illness and flatten the curve even before we finish the legislation, but we want to be in a position where we can use this tool if we choose, which is why I asked to convene this meeting. You know that yesterday the morbidity crossed the 400 (single-day) line, and unfortunately it keeps showing signs of increasing. This tool, if needed, and under complete supervision, will serve to stop the spreading of the pandemic.”

A senior member of Kahol Lavan told Haaretz that the party would support the bill only in its first vote, so it can “sit on the shelf” in case it’s needed, and that they did not plan to advance it for a second or third vote in the near term. Kahol Lavan is expected to ultimately support the bill only under the following conditions: making it emergency legislation for three months with the ability to extend it for 14 days each time, and that implementing it would require Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Kahol Lavan’s leader, to approve its implementation, along with Netanyahu.

During a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet this week there were disputes among the ministers regarding the use of the Shin Bet to monitor residents. Ministers Gabi Ashkenazi, Avi Nissenkorn, Amir Peretz and Izhar Shay opposed resuming the tracking, which was stopped on the order of the High Court of Justice, before the process of finding a civilian alternative is exhausted. Ashkenazi said he didn’t think the current level of new cases justified the resumption of this surveillance. Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman warned that codifying the surveillance in law could expose his organization’s technology and work methods. Netanyahu said in response that “the enemy is already familiar” with the system in question.

Women wear face masks while shopping in Jerusalem, June 8, 2020Credit: Emil Salman

Health system sources warned this week against resuming Shin Bet tracking, saying it undermined individual rights and the faith of people in the system. A source on the Pandemic Task Force told Haaretz that using the cellular tracking “Is a ‘cheap’ solution to the failure to set up a system of testing and investigation.” He added, “At the price of trampling on civil rights and building an antidemocratic precedent – and apparently at less cost than operating the existing systems – they are refraining from budgeting, recruiting and training personnel for the middle and long term.”

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