Knesset Panel Bars Digital Tracking of COVID Patients by Israel's Security Service

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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A man in a protective mask passes another man talking on his mobile phone at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, 2020.
A man in a protective mask passes another man talking on his mobile phone at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, 2020.Credit: Maya Alleruzzo,AP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

A Knesset panel decided on Monday against authorizing the government's request to continue deploying the Shin Bet security service in highly controversial coronavirus tracking.

The government decision, taken on March 25, would allow Israel's internal security service to use additional means to halt the spread of coronavirus.

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The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee gave the government a day to come up with a more narrowly tailored plan.

The cabinet had voted to extend the Shin Bet’s authority to track citizens through the use of cellphone locations for another three weeks in its current format. If the cabinet does not submit a revised plan, the Shin Bet’s current authority will expire.

The chairman of the Knesset committee, Derech Eretz Knesset member Zvi Hauser, and former minister Moshe Ya’alon were among those who voted against extending the duration of the Shin Bet’s authority.

According to Health Ministry data provided to the committee, Shin Bet tracking activity was able to identify 2.2 percent of newly infected COVID-19 patients over the past week. That was the first week in which the tracking identified fewer than 5 percent of new coronavirus cases.

A total of 236 Israelis entered quarantine over the past week after data from the cellphones indicated that they had come in contact with a confirmed carrier of COVID-19 During the same period, the Health Ministry identified 17,000 people who were required to go into isolation through the use of epidemiological tracing.

Since cellphone tracking began about a year ago, the Shin Bet has identified more than 700,000 people who had come in contact with confirmed patients. About 104,000 of the 700,000 people were found to have become infected themselves.

“The Shin Bet tracking is currently making a negligible contribution to curbing the pandemic,” Hauser said. “Given the fact that the scope of infection has declined significantly and that the Shin Bet tracking has been applied to fewer than 15 percent of the confirmed patients, the continued tracking would not make a substantial contribution in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.”

Four committee members, including Hauser and Ya’alon, voted against continued use of the Shin Bet tracking while three members voted in favor of extending its use, including Likud Knesset member Avi Dichter, who noted that three of the four Knesset members who voted against are not returning to the Knesset following last week’s election.

“Just in the past two months, according to Health Ministry data, the Shin Bet tracking has spared 210 deaths and tens of thousands of illnesses,” said Dichter, who called the committee decision “cheap populism.”

In late February, the High Court of Justice ruled that the Shin Bet had to cease across-the-board use of cellphone data for tracking purposes by March 14, prior to which the security agency had been authorized to track the whereabouts of any confirmed coronavirus patient. The court ruled that those patients who had failed to cooperate in the epidemiological investigation of their case could still be tracked, unless they claimed not to have come into contact with anyone during the relevant period prior to their diagnosis.

The Shin Bet’s tracking activity had not been effective, the justices found, also noting the success of Israel’s vaccination campaign against the coronavirus. The court ruled that the broad authority given to the Shin Bet on the matter should therefore be reevaluated. In October, a report from the State Comptroller’s Office stated that the tracking activity as not sufficiently effective when compared to the Health Ministry’s epidemiological investigation work.

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