Israel's Top Court Limits Digital Tracking of COVID Patients, Warning of a 'Slippery Slope'

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Pedestrians in Jerusalem, last month.
Pedestrians in Jerusalem, last month.Credit: Emil Salman
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The High Court of Justice ruled Monday that the Shin Bet security service must halt its digital tracking of citizens for coronavirus contact tracing in most cases, finding that it unjustifiably violated citizens’ privacy rights.

From March 14, the Shin Bet will be allowed to use tracking only in cases in which confirmed cases refuse to cooperate with contact tracers or say they had no contact with anyone whatsoever.

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The ruling by a panel of seven judges came after human rights organizations filed a petition against the tracking. In December, a ministerial committee said the Shin Bet would reduce and restrict the tracking, but the government later told the High Court that this would not be taking place, as it was too difficult to decide who precisely was not cooperating with contact tracers.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut wrote in the majority opinion that events had validated earlier concerns that the tracking, justified as a temporary measure, might become permanent.

Justice Isaac Amit was scathing in his remarks, describing the tracking as “a slippery slope” and saying that what was at issue was not merely privacy violations, but rather the fact that privacy was being violated specifically by the country’s security service.

Furthermore, Amit said, while “Israel is the only democracy in the Western world that recruited its secret service to the war against the coronavirus,” it still had to declare multiple lockdowns and curfews and faced high levels of infection. The tracking also led to errors that mistakenly ordered hundreds of thousands of people into quarantine, Amit added.

In a dissenting opinion, Justices Noam Sohlberg and Neal Hendel wrote that the decision should remain in the hands of the government.

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