Knesset Approves 'Restrained' Bill on Digital Tracking in Coronavirus Fight

Tracking by security service extended until 2021, but the cabinet would have to reconfirm it every 21 days, and the Health Ministry must launch a mobile app that will facilitate contact tracing

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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A man wearing a mask and talking on a cellphone by the beach in Tel Aviv, May 2020.
A man wearing a mask and talking on a cellphone by the beach in Tel Aviv, May 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Knesset approved on Monday a controversial bill that allows Israel to continue using the Shin Bet security service to track people who were in close contact with coronavirus patients.

Under the new law, so long as the number of epidemiological investigations the country requires tops 200 a day, the cabinet can convene and allow the Health Ministry to use the Shin Bet’s cellphone tracking capabilities. Every such decision by the cabinet would be valid for 21 days, and can be extended according to the rate of infection. The Shin Bet would now be allowed to track people for the coming three weeks, beginning Tuesday. The law will remain in effect until January 2021.

The law also requires the Health Ministry to respond within 24 hours to appeals by people sent into quarantine based on the Shin Bet’s data, following public criticism of its accuracy. According to data submitted to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Sunday, about 60 percent of appeals against orders to self-quarantine due to ostensible contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient were granted.

A woman checks on her phone the Hamagen (shield) application that was launched in March 2020.Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee decided not to adopt the proposal to limit the Shin Bet tracking to areas with significant outbreaks of the virus.

The final version of the bill takes a strong stand that obligates the government to launch the HaMagen 2 contact tracing app within a week, which can act as an alternative to Shin Bet tracking in the future if at least two million people download it. The law obligates the government to conduct a broad campaign to encourage use of the app, which is expected to be more accurate and effective in identifying patients and those who came into contact with them.

The new law also establishes a mechanism for overseeing tracking. Along with requiring the Health Ministry to report weekly on the number of people traced and the extent of the tracking's effectiveness, the law gives the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee the authority to cancel the tracking under certain circumstances, like a drop in the number of new cases to below 200 a day, or in the event that enough Israelis download the government’s app.

The law that allowed the Shin Bet to resume phone tracking was passed earlier this month as interim legislation that was to set expire on Wednesday. At the time, it was promised that a somewhat more flexible bill would be submitted to the Knesset.

“The order is much more restrained than the previous emergency legislation, and proportional,” Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Zvi Hauser said. “The Knesset can, at any time, step in and not approve the cabinet resolution or allocate a different time frame for it. The decision is restrained given the complexity of the law and of life. We also added an objective mechanism that’s clear to the public: There must be a situation testifying to the existence of a strong pandemic, namely 200 new infections a day.”

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel argued that using the Shin Bet is “an extreme measure in its undermining of civil rights,” vowing to carry on with its appeal against it, despite the changes made to the bill.

“It’s undemocratic and that’s why no other democracy tracks its citizens this way,” the group said. “It’s not effective, because it sends tens of thousands into quarantine with no epidemiological justification and there are more accurate and effective alternatives, like strengthening personal questioning and adding HaMagen 2, which has been ready for launch for a month and for some reason wasn’t released.”

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