Analysis |

Israel Is Following China on Surveillance. Here's Why That Should Worry You

The Shin Bet’s cell phone tracking has failed shamefully, yet the government keeps trying to intrude even further into our lives via our phones. And once it gets in, it’s hard to believe it will ever get out again

Anat Ben-David
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Chinese citizens are required to scan QR codes as part of China's coronavirus tracking program. Israel is now contemplating a similar measure
Chinese citizens are required to scan QR codes as part of China's coronavirus tracking program. Israel is now contemplating a similar measureCredit: ALY SONG/ REUTERS
Anat Ben-David

For nine months, the government has entrenched itself in the position that there’s no alternative to cellphone tracking by the Shin Bet security service as part of Israel’s attempt to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. It holds this position despite its embarrassingly poor ability to identify coronavirus carriers (it identified just 3.5 percent of verified patients, according to a state comptroller’s report) and its high error rate. Soon, however, the state will have to revisit its plans, since in January, the law authorizing it to use the secretive intelligence service on citizens in its battle against the virus will expire.

By that time, according to the law, the state was supposed to have developed a voluntary, civilian alternative to the Shin Bet tracking. But time after time, government representatives claimed that the Health Ministry’s alternatives weren’t good enough and that in general: Israelis weren’t cooperating with epidemiological investigations, weren’t reporting to the Health Ministry when they were supposed to enter quarantine and, above all, weren’t being honest with the authorities.

“What can we do?” MK Avi Dichter said at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday. “It’s impossible to replace the people.” Consequently, there’s no choice; the state must continue involuntary tracking.

Granted, the state did unveil the Hamagen app. The first version was developed with open-source code in cooperation with well-known information security experts and the app development community, and it also earned the public’s trust, without any investment in marketing. 

But this situation changed very quickly. As time passed and development continued on a subsequent version, the state returned to its old ways. The information security experts were left by the wayside and the code became far less open than claimed.

It also became clear that the app disrupted normal use of the phone, leading many people to uninstall it. No less important, many Israelis didn’t understand why they had to install an app that did what the Shin Bet was doing in any case. So the public abandoned Hamagen, development of the app was halted and no other voluntary civilian alternatives were developed.

Now, even as petitions against the Shin Bet tracking and the failure to develop civilian alternatives are still pending before the Supreme Court, the state is seeking to develop yet more new apps and force Israelis to install them. Should you want to go to the mall, you’ll have to scan a QR code with your phone at the entrance, and you’ll only be allowed in if you’ve tested negative for the virus.

Now say you want to access some other essential service? You’ll have to scan a QR code with your phone, or you won’t be allowed to obtain the service if you haven't been vaccinated yet. And meanwhile, everything you do and everyplace you go will be reported in real time to the Health Ministry.

This solution, which is being framed with the misleading term “soft coercion,” may sound familiar, because it’s already in use in China, a country that’s not considered a democracy and doesn’t hesitate to violate individual rights via “hard” coercion, either. 

Chinese citizens scan a QR code as part of China's coronavirus tracking program. Israel is now contemplating a similar measure Credit: STRINGER/Reuters

So instead of official Shin Bet tracking, we’ll get the same thing in another guise – forced reporting to the state in real time about the whereabouts of every Israeli. This solution, which deals a mortal blow to the right to privacy, freedom of movement and other rights, like the right to equality, is dangerous.

The state’s penetration into our cellphones reflects a misplaced conflation of Israelis with their devices. Ever since the onset of the modern state, the state has needed instruments of knowledge to manage and control the masses living in its territory. The science of statistics developed in parallel with the rise of the modern state as a tool the state could use to “know” its population. 

A woman crosses a street in Tel Aviv. Israel is conflating citizens with their smartphonesCredit: Ofer Vaknin

As the years passed, bringing with them the advent of new technologies, the state has tried to use new knowledge devices as well. But the knowledge smartphones generate about the population belongs to the individuals themselves, and it goes well beyond what the state needs to know.

The state’s entry into our cellphones opens a Pandora’s box of possibilities for managing, restricting, controlling and regimenting the population in ways that were impossible in the past. The issue isn’t just the collection of information or the continuous monitoring of our location; a cellphone is the most intimate device a person possesses. It doesn’t contain only information she chooses to share, but also one’s deepest desires, ways of thinking, and indeed secrets.

Possessing a cellphone isn’t a civic obligation. Significant segments of society don’t have one, and every person can choose whether they want to use a certain technology or not. But how can people choose not to use smartphones if they are necessary to obtain vital services or enter public places?

The mere fact that a particular technology is available doesn’t legitimize it as an appropriate democratic solution. As evidence, no other democratic country has even considered employing coercion via a requirement to install a centralized app that delivers sensitive information to the state. 

Just as we’ve discovered that the state is addicted to Shin Bet tracking even though it’s been proven ineffective over and over, there’s a real danger that once the proposition to enforce installing tracking applications is approved, the state will never get out of our phones.

Dr. Anat Ben-David is senior lecturer in the Open University’s department of sociology, political science and communication.

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