Israel Extends Digital Surveillance of Citizens, Despite Lack of Coronavirus Data

With a very low success rate and few real details, the Shin Bet’s mandate for contact tracing was extended for the fifth time

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

Israeli lawmakers voted to extend Shin Bet contact tracing as part of the attempt to quell the spread of the coronavirus. However, the vote was held without any in depth review of its efficacy and amid contradicting claims regarding the technology’s success rate. The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee vote on Monday was the fifth time the Shin Bet’s authorization to track Israeli citizens was extended. 

Most of the meeting focused on the possibility of cutting isolation periods from 14 to 12 days, the damage done in keeping hundreds of thousands of Israelis away from their jobs at the ministry’s behest, and restrictions on protests.

The discussion barely touched on the issue of to what degree the Shin Bet has been successful in identifying coronavirus cases. Instead, debate about the tracking dealt mainly with the possible results of using this tool: For example, reducing the number of days that working Israelis should remain at home in isolation when they have identified as having been in contact with someone who comes down with the virus. This, which assessments said cost the Israeli economy millions of shekel, was the main issues discussed.   

The committee did not discuss, for example, the app that’s supposed to help trace coronavirus cases, for which there has been no investment ever since its initial development eight months ago as a tool for the public to use.

According to the data on the subject provided by the Health Ministry, over a three month period (from July to September), 645,000 text messages were sent out requiring the recipients to isolate themselves due to Shin Bet contact tracing. Taking into account that a number of Israelis appealed the demand to isolate and won, about half a million Israelis are still in quarantine as a result of the messages. The percentage of success for this tool in spotting Israelis tested for coronavirus who wind up testing positive, the report said, has been only 13.5%.

A screen capture of the SMS messages sent to Israelis as part of the Shin Bet's contact tracing program
A screen capture of the SMS messages sent to Israelis as part of the Shin Bet's contact tracing programCredit:

The main point debated in this regard was the heavy economic price paid by the public due to the large number of Israelis being put into quarantine, perhaps without justification, but not its actual inefficiency. 

Only in the last half hour of discussion did they remember to raise the issue of the actual data and the fact that it was unclear to what extent the contact tracing actually worked. 

About a week ago a ministerial committee was supposed to hold a professional discussion and supply the committee with recommendations about using Shin bet technology. But at the committee meeting it turned out that the ministerial panel failed to present any orderly data to help in the fight against the virus while restoring full economic activity. Various versions about how successful the Shin Bet tools were presented to the committee as well as the differences of opinion among the professionals as to their efficacy.

Those who voted in favor of renewing the tracing were lawmakers from the government, including Zvi Hauser from Benny Gantz’s party, and Likud members Amit Levy, Avi Dichter Michal Shir, Uzi Dayan, Gideon Sa’ar and Nir Barkat, as well as Uriel Bousso. The lawmakers who voted against the measure - Orna Barbivai and Moshe Ya’alon - were both from the opposition, coming from the Telem faction of the Yesh Atid party. 

Barbivai said the committee was not dealing with the subject at hand, and Hauser, the chairman, replied that not every Shin Bet monitoring tool is effective and the problem is the ministry’s insistence upon the 14 day period off isolation. Treasury officials said that cutting two days off that period would save the economy 800 million shekels.

They all heard and also provided contradicting data on contact tracing.  

The privacy authority or regulator said that the Shin Bet tracing had only six percent success compared to 13% for the ministry’s health representatives. Dichter said that judging by the documents prepared by the ministerial committee, there was actually a 40% success rate for the Shin Bet. Hauser said the numbers show a 20% percent success rate. Dichter said the Magen app was ineffective. Barbivai said the Shin Bet law ought to be amended and the tool ought to be used on a more limited basis. 

Ya’alon said “the committee has been dealing with the Shin Bet tools since March when the ministry said we would wind up with 10,000 cases and on this basis I voted in favor of using these tools. Today I vote against it. We are holding a very narrow discussion about the success of this tool. Prof. Hagai Levine (the head of public health) is right, we must build a mechanism that spots the super spreaders. In the meantime public confidence is waning.”

From Japan to Ireland, at least 25 countries have deployed an official contact tracing app, according to the MIT Technology Review, but features differ. Some, like Israel's Magen app and Cyprus' COVTRACER keep track of a phone location via GPS.

In the last minutes of the discussion Hauser finally discussed the public app: “We can say that the state of Israel has neglected [the app] Magen 2. The updated version was installed in July by 70,000 Israelis and removed by 38,000 of them. In other words, there are 30,000 people who have installed the app. The Health Ministry has abandoned its use and we will examine this down the line.”

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