Limited Measure? Israel Determined to Extend COVID-19 Digital Surveillance of Israelis

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ILLUSTRATION: Israel has reauthorised the Shin Bet to track citizens through their phones as part of the attempt to curb the spread of coronavirus - but is it working?
ILLUSTRATION: Israel has reauthorised the Shin Bet to track citizens through their phones as part of the attempt to curb the spread of coronavirus - but is it working? Credit: אוהד צויגנברג

Although the Shin Bet surveillance on civilians has proved ineffective in breaking the chain of coronavirus infections in Israel, the state, which has yet to offer an alternative to help trace carriers of the virus, seems deadset on reauthorizing the problematic tracking measures.

After dozens of meetings over the past eight months, The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week extended yet again by two weeks the Shin Bet’s mandate for surveillance on civilians as part of its contact tracing efforts.

The law enabling this drastic measure expires on January 20 and Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kish from the ruling Likud party said his ministry will demand to reenact it once the date arrives.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with head of the Shin Bet Nadav Argaman, January 2020Credit: Amos Ben Gershom, GPO

We have covered the issue of contact tracing and how Israel has chosen to employ it over the past months. Here are five points the relevant committee should have considered in its meetings and are even more important as the law’s expiration date nears:

1. A technological failure

In March the state presented Shin Bet tracking method as an easily available and effective means of stopping the coronavirus spread. The draft of the bill behind the law emphasized that the Health Ministry must also develop an alternative app and submit it within two weeks. 

Over the past eight months since then it has transpired that the questionable measure has not proved effective. The number of people contracting the disease has remained high and the plan to use Health Ministry endorsed app Hamagen – which can tell if you’ve been in the presence of anyone who was diagnosed with coronavirus - failed to emerge as an alternative.

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

To enable close oversight of the tracking surveillance, due to the invasion of privacy it involves, the committee is required to reauthorize tracking measures every three weeks. Despite this oversight, no figures justifying the intrusion of millions of civilians’ cell phones have been presented. At every meeting, the participants find themselves buried in piles of Health Ministry documents, which fail to paint a coherent picture of the tracking’s effectiveness in comparison to the epidemiological investigations occupying some 4,000 researchers.

For example, the ministry gave a hypothetical number for overall count the seriously-ill elderly patients and death cases the Shin Bet’s tracking had allegedly prevented, instead of  revealing the actual number of Israelis whom the Shin Bet had isolated, and who have been verified as corona carriers with the help of the app. Also, it is not clear how the ministry had arrived at that hypothetical figure.

MK Zvi Hauser (R) admitted tracking was futile: 'Out of 62,000 people asked to go into isolation, only about 15 percent had been tracked exclusively by the Shin Bet'Credit: Oliver Fitoussi

Committee Chairman Zvi Hauser (Derech Eretz) admitted the tracking was futile: “Out of 62,000 people who were asked to go into isolation this week, about 15 percent had been tracked exclusively by the Shin Bet. This is only five percent of the verified patients that had been tracked – a gap I’m not comfortable with. It stresses the need to find alternative methods,” he said.

The use of the contact-tracing app to find corona patients also failed due to the user unfriendly interface, the high battery consumption of the app and numerous identification errors. No safe, effective alternative was offered over the past months and the committee didn’t discuss how to restore the public’s faith in the app.

2. No experts

Academic and professional health professionals, lawyers, experts in technology and law, and human rights activists are supposed to represent the public at the committee’s meetings. Last week, no less than 22 of them sent Hauser a letter protesting the committee’s failure to discuss alternatives and decision to devote its last meetings to discussions about the shortening of the isolation period. 

“More than two months we’ve been on the Zoom calls and have not been allowed to take part in the debates,” the letter says. “If one of us is finally heard, it’s in a perfunctory manner. In these circumstances we’ve reached the regrettable conclusion that there’s no point in our participation in these discussions.”

Israel has reauthorised the Shin Bet to track citizens through their phones as part of the attempt to curb the spread of coronavirus - but is it working? Credit: Moti Milrod

At the last meeting Hauser said the experts’ concerns pertained solely to the debate about privacy and not other aspects of tracking. However, putting hundreds of thousands of Israelis in isolation unnecessarily due to mistaken Shin Bet tracking, for example, has infringed on other basic rights, such as the freedom of movement and the freedom of employment.

Due to the high cost the economy, valued at roughly one billion shekel, recent weeks saw the committee focus on reducing the number of isolation days, Hauser said in response to the letter. “On this issue the human rights organizations did not see fit to give their opinion. Despite the Health Ministry’s insistence, we managed to shorten the isolation time and reduce the infringement to human rights and saved millions of shekels to the economy. Close to the expiry of the order authorizing the Shin Bet tracking the committee will discuss again alternatives to the tracking, and the organizations will be able to give their opinions again.”

3. The official app - or lack thereof 

In January the Shin Bet law will expire, so if the government wants to use the secret service’s tracking devices it must reenact the law. In wake of a Association of Civil Rights’ petition to the high court, the government must answer by December 8 why it’s still using the tracking measures, despite the alignment of epidemiological scientists that permit limiting tracking, as recommended by the state’s privacy watchdog. The government must also explain why there is no alternative to the Shin Bet tracking yet.

As far as is known, 2.5 million Israelis have downloaded the Health Ministry’s COVID-19 tracking app, Hamagen. But more than 1.5 million have deleted it. One major reason for the app’s failure is that the ultra Orthodox community and children don’t have smartphones.

About two weeks ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tasked Technology and Science Minister Yizhar Shai and Higher Education and Water Resources Minister Zeev Elkin with finding an alternative to Hamagen tracking app.

At the corona cabinet meeting Health Minister Yuli Edelstein expressed his frustration with “the people’s” not downloading the app. “I give up. It’s impossible to put the app to mass use, it hasn’t worked in any country. The app is good but the people aren’t downloading it,” he said.

Now the government appears to be looking for ways to tempt the public to agree to install the app and the so-called coronavirus cabinet is considering obliging civil servants to download it and to condition reopening access to places of business by permitting only those with the app to enter. So with or without the Shin Bet, there will be surveillance on the public.

A screenshot of the Health Ministry's coronavirus tracking app 'hamagen' (literally, the shield) on the Apple App Store.Credit: Haaretz, Apple, Israel Health Ministry

In the past the government earmarked 4 million shekels for a media campaign to advance installing the app. But after wasting 2 million shekels on advertising, the public deleted the app en mass and the Health Ministry shelved the campaign. Other ideas, like handing out tracking bracelets and other wearable tracking devices, weren’t handled properly and were dropped.

4. From Red to Green

The Health Ministry is developing a QR-scanner application to help businesses to resume their activity. It hasn’t been announced officially yet, although a special ministerial team has discussed it at a number of meetings.

Sources familiar with the development said the app is not intended to cut the chain of infection but rather to scan people entering malls and shops and provide information that will help to curb the virus’ spread. After Hamagen’s failure, should the resources be invested in a new app? And does the app ensure the prevention of invasion of privacy?

The Health Ministry issued a statement saying: “The ministry presented a concept of an application that supports the ‘traffic light plan’ and enables people to obtain information based on their location. As part of the effort to prevent the coronavirus’ spread in Israel and to return to routine, the ministry is constantly examining additional possible solutions, including digital ones. The ministry will be happy to give more details as the solution’s development progresses.”

5. No options? 

At the beginning of the crisis, then-Defense Minister Naftali Bennett suggested allowing the cyber-attack company NSO Group to operate a platform predicting the corona spread. The police wanted to develop a platform that identifies gatherings and then-coronavirus czar Prof. Roni Gamzu suggested the use of facial-recognition to track down people who aren’t wearing masks in public. In discussions behind closed doors officials discussed drones to help the police track down people who refuse to wear masks – just like in China.

Apparently, after falling in love with surveillance and gathering information on its citizens’ movements, the state refuses to admit the existing apps aren’t helping its struggle against the coronavirus. Judging by the committee’s discussions, the goal is to authorize the tracking measures no matter what. The way the government is behaving now, all these invasive technologies may even be used simultaneously.

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