Shin Bet Security Agency Proposes New Civil Body to Digitally Track Omicron Patients in Israel

When COVID first erupted, Israel decided to have the Shin Bet digitally track patients to locate people that might have been infected, however the agency asks the government to set up a civilian group for this purpose

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People hold their cell phones in Jerusalem, in August.
People hold their cell phones in Jerusalem, in August.Credit: Emil Salman
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

The Shin Bet security service told the coronavirus cabinet on Saturday that Israel should establish a civilian body to track coronavirus patients through their cellphones, rather than asking the agency to do it.

The cabinet was discussing reinstituting Shin Bet tracking for people infected with the new omicron variant, and ultimately decided to do so despite the agency’s objections.

When the pandemic first erupted, the cabinet decided to have the Shin Bet track patients’ cellphones in an effort to locate people that might have been infected. The agency also said at the time that it would be better to create a civilian agency to do this, as it feared that its involvement in a highly intrusive and purely civilian task would undermine public faith in it. The successive governments have not established such an agency despite the Shin Bet's request.

At the Saturday night meeting, Shin Bet director Ronen Bar argued that any renewed involvement by his agency should be on a much more limited basis than it was during previous waves of the virus, when the Shin Bet tracked all patients. Both the coronavirus cabinet and the full cabinet accepted this position and agreed to have the agency track only people suspected of carrying the omicron variant.

In addition, people suspected of contact with an omicron patient will merely be instructed to immediately go to the nearest testing station to determine whether they were actually infected. In the past, anyone the Shin Bet determined had been in contact with a verified patient was sent a text message instructing them to quarantine for 14 days.

Bar also told the coronavirus cabinet that based on experience, the agency’s cellphone tracking is effective only when the number of patients is low. If the infection rate increases significantly – and Israel sees dozens or hundreds of omicron patients – the Shin Bet will request to halt its tracking. If this occurs, Shin Bet members say, the chain of infection could include tens of thousands of people if not more, and the policy will no longer be effective.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz told a press conference on Sunday that he prefers "that the Shin Bet deal with security matters, rather than civilian ones." But, he added, due to the current situation, "I decided with the authority vested in me to acquiesce to the request of the experts, and make this decision."

Using the Shin Bet to track civilians who came in contact with coronavirus patients has been controversial since the beginning in March 2020 and until its expiration last summer.

The High Court of Justice has long been critical of this practice. In January, the court noted that almost 400,000 people were mistakenly quarantined due to the Shin Bet security service’s cellphone tracking. In March, the High Court ruled that the agency could only track patients who refuse to cooperate with contact tracers, saying that the policy of monitoring citizens unjustifiably violated their privacy rights.

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 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.

The State's Comptroller's October report found that the tracking is not effective enough compared to the epidemiological investigations conducted by the Health Ministry. The Knesset's Security and Foreign Affairs Committee consequently rescinded the government's decision to continue using Shin Bet tracking, leaving room to dial back the scope of the tracking. In practice, use of this technology was stopped following the plateau in COVID infection rates.

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