Knesset Passes Temporary Law Allowing Digital Tracking of Coronavirus Patients by Security Service

Coalition pushing forward legislation to allow the Shin Bet to track COVID-19 patients, despite promised delay in favor of softer permanent legislation

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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A woman talks on her cell phone as she walks in Tel Aviv, June 29, 2020.
A woman talks on her cell phone as she walks in Tel Aviv, June 29, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Knesset passed temporary legislation allowing for digital tracking of coronavirus patients by the Shin Bet security service after two votes on Wednesday.

The vote, which was supposed to take place Tuesday, was delayed to give the governing coalition additional time to whip up support for the bill, which is aimed at curbing the recent spike in coronavirus cases in Israel. Fifty-three lawmakers voted in favor of the bill, while 38 opposed it.

Some Knesset members expressed concern over a possible invasion of privacy resulting from the involvement of the Shin Bet – which is involved chiefly in counterterrorism, and usually does not monitor the movements of law-abiding citizens.

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh, who opposes the bill, said of the vote: The truth is that the more they take away our privacy rights and the government becomes more draconian, the pandemic only gets stronger. The government has lost control of the pandemic, because it is mostly concerned with how to control us.”

Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker Eli Avidar also criticized the legislation, saying that “the Shin Bet’s technology is meant to help the Shin Bet keep us secure from terrorism, and absolutely not against the sick or other crises in society. Only dictatorial societies use all the tools at their disposal to impose order, obedience, and slavfery, and we do not want to be like that, although Netanyahu very much would.“

Zvi Hauzer addresses the Knesset plenum, May 15, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said it would petition the High Court of Justice once more to block the bill, which it says is “unconstitutional.” In a statement, the rights group said: “No democratic state has employed its security service in the fight against the coronavirus… This is a fundamentally wrong move, which shows how easily a government might be tempted to use extreme mass surveillance measures that were developed to fight terrorism, and use them to track civilians.”

On Monday, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Zvi Hauser of Derech Eretz, postponed the vote after Knesset members from the opposition submitted dozens of reservations to the bill. The Health Ministry suggested a vote on permanent and conditioned legislation next Monday instead, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's chief of staff demanded that Hauser move the vote up to Tuesday.

Ahead of the vote, the Knesset opposition announced that it would not engage in pairing on the matter – a customary practice where an opposition member refrains from voting when a coalition member is unable to turn up for the vote in order to maintain the relative voting positions of the blocs.

On Tuesday, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee gave its support to the temporary bill, which is to remain in effect until July 22 and cannot be extended. The bill allows the Health Ministry to involve the Shin Bet in epidemiological investigations on days when there are more than 200 patients whose cases require investigation. The bill would also authorize the Shin Bet to track the location of individuals in cases where the investigation cannot be completed by other means.

In the more permanent legislation, lawmakers are weighing the possibility of allowing tracking only in areas with a high rate of infection, but the content of the bill is not yet finished. That bill is expected to replace the temporary legislation.

The bill allows the Shin Bet to locate and track citizens, but the security service staff would not have direct contact with patients or with people whom patients may have infected. The security agency would not be involved in monitoring quarantine violations.

According to the bill, the Shin Bet will provide the Health Ministry with location data of anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 and people who had been in contact with carriers within the 14-days prior to diagnosis. The information is expected to include data on individuals' identities, location and whom they have had contact with, in accordance with the country's wiretapping laws, but not their phonecalls. The Shin Bet and the Health Ministry would be required to submit weekly reports to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee regarding their joint activities.

Opposition Knesset member Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid-Telem slammed the government coalition at Tuesday’s committee meeting for continuing its efforts to pass the temporary legislation, after it had been decided overnight to shelve the bill.

“My concern about this bill, beyond its invasion of privacy – and there are situations in which the state is permitted to invade privacy to save human lives – is that it won’t do what’s really necessary,” he said. “Instead of expanding the epidemiological investigations, the government will be relying entirely on the Shin Bet instead of the Health Ministry, and maybe tomorrow, the Sayeret Matkal [army commando unit] will handcuff people and place them in quarantine for not wearing masks.”

Eli Avidar of the opposition Yisrael Beiteinu party, said: "The coalition members shouldn't have played this game and stuck to their word, so their agreements mean something. But they chose not to do that." Avidar claimed that the digital tracking is inaccurate. "They'll put half the country in quarantine," he said. "the only effective tool is expanding the epidemiological network, to carry out more investigations and to use the Magen 2.0 app, which is 1,000 times more accurate," he said, referring to the Health Ministry smartphone app, which alerts users (who opt into the service) if they have crossed paths with a confirmed patient.

For his part, however, Hauser, the committee chairman, said, “I believed yesterday [Monday] and still believe that this is the way to assist the epidemiological investigations and it must be made available immediately in order to help the Health Ministry. We agree that a civilian alternative would be preferable, if it is as effective, but I don't believe that is the case at the moment."

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