Israeli Malls, Required to Monitor Shoppers in the Battle Against Coronavirus, Fear Losing Traffic

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Azrieli Center Mall in Tel Aviv.
Azrieli Center Mall in Tel Aviv.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Following on the heels of the Shin Bet, the police, the Health Ministry and the health maintenance organizations, Israel’s shopping malls and open markets are now being called on to monitor human traffic to help control the spread of the coronavirus.

The Finance Ministry wants shopping malls to resume normal activity as early as this week, but the Health Ministry is talking about a return to routine only in another two weeks and only on condition that they register the names of people coming in through an app.

Not only would shoppers have to provide their names, identity numbers and telephone numbers upon entering malls, the malls themselves would be divided into zones and customers would have to give the information a second time when they move from one zone to another.

No decision has been made about reopening the malls and under what conditions, but the debate itself is raising again the unpleasant prospect of adding more institutions to the list of those collecting data on Israeli citizens for the sake of controlling the pandemic.

In addition, a lot of details about the proposal have yet to be sorted out. Will malls all use the same app? Or will shoppers have to download a new one for each mall they enter? Will the system enable individual tracking of each customer? Will mall owners be able to keep the data they are collecting and use it? What about shoppers who can’t download the app, such as Haredim, who often don’t use smartphones, or children?

A treasury official told TheMarker this week that the proposal was a problem from a legal perspective and hinted that it shouldn’t be used to delay the reopening of malls.

Prof. Karine Nahon, president of the Israel Internet Association and a member of the Israeli Digital Rights Movement, warned that if the proposal goes into effect it would undermine consumer confidence and deter mall shopping.

“If the government is going to make the malls force visitors to download a tracking app on their mobile phone, it’s going to be an unreasonable and unusual step. It would hurt the malls’ businesses badly. People will take their business elsewhere to protect their privacy,” she said.

Mall owners assert that they are opposed to the idea in the name of customer privacy. But many are apparently concerned about losing traffic to downtown stores and strip malls, and have begun lobbying officials against the plan.

“The Health Ministry’s demands will cause serious damage to visitors’ basic right to privacy,” Ophir Sarid, CEO of Melisron, one of Israel’s biggest mall owner/operators, said in a letter sent two days ago to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sarid asserted that the Health Ministry had no legal authority to insist on registration and that the government had no right to grant it the authority through an emergency order. Noting that big-box stores like Ikea weren’t being subjected to the rule, he claimed that the proposal was designed simply to delay mall reopenings altogether.

Eitan Bar Zeev, chairman of Big Shopping Centers, which operates strip malls, contends that mall owners’ opposition stems from fears over losing business.

“The result of the directive would be insufferable and hurt their turnover. As popular as the malls are, many people will not agree to stand in long lines at the mall entrance or in their cars entering the parking garage,” Bar Zeev said.

Strip malls have been allowed to open for business. Beforehand, Big had prepared for the possibility it would have to register shoppers with iPads, but in the end the government decided there was no need.

“From the perspective of privacy, it’s reasonable to assume that the government won’t allow the malls to use the data they collect. I think that if the malls were allowed to collect it to create a database that they could use to boost sales, they wouldn’t be so concerned about their customers’ privacy,” he said.

Meanwhile, there is growing concern among the public about all the data collection. The Knesset is due to decide this week when to let the Shin Bet security service continue monitoring coronavirus patients and those with whom they have come into contact. In addition, the Health Ministry has an app that tracks more than a million Israelis to monitor their contact with confirmed coronavirus sufferers.

Prof. Nahor said the time had come for the prime minister to offer the public more information about the directives the government is issuing.

“A lot of questions are being asked for which no answers have been given. Why does the government need to add more tracking apps? Why isn’t it enough to ensure social distancing and limit people’s entry into certain places by directive?” she said.

“I’m worried that the decision to use invasive measures is simply an easy one even if it’s not the most effective or correct one to fight the virus,” Nahor said.

Dov Ganor, founding CEO of Mobility Insight (Mobi), which is developing a traffic-monitoring system, said there are ways that malls can obey the directives without violating customers’ privacy. His company gathers data for the Transportation Ministry from cameras, cellphone and databases, then analyzes it to provide insights officials can make use of.

“We don’t collect any private information that identifies anyone. I can tell whether a mall is ensuring social distancing or if someone has visited a mall or market. The tool performs a statistical analysis and examines interactions so policymakers can see whether people are observing the directive on public gathering,” said Ganor.

Czamanski & Ben Shahar, a retail consulting firm, sells the Mobi system in Israel and says 10 shopping centers are already using it, including the strip malls that have resumed operations recently.

“Today, more than in the past, mall managers want to know how many people are coming, where they’re coming from and how much time they spend in the mall and see how their customers behave. So I believe that the minute they know when they can reopen and what the requirements are, they will work to get the data,” said CEO Tamir Ben Shahar.

Ben Shahar said he believes the Health Ministry’s proposal is misguided.

“The government needs to tell the malls how many people they are allowed to bring in and give them the ability to do that. But what the government wants to do is handicap the malls,” he said. “The malls are already at a disadvantage because they are enclosed places that people are afraid to go to.”

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