Israeli Officials Finally Admit: Anti-coronavirus Surveillance Data Is False

Israeli lawmakers for months voted to extend the Shin Bet’s mandate to track citizens, despite warnings that it wasn't working

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A woman looks at her phone as a girl stands next to her in Tel Aviv, September 15, 2020.
A woman looks at her phone as a girl stands next to her in Tel Aviv, September 15, 2020. Credit: CORINNA KERN / REUTERS

Israel has decided to continue to allow the Shin Bet to track citizens as part of its attempt to quell the spread of the coronavirus. Following the vote to renew the secret intel service’s surveillance, another debate was held about the actual data provided by the state to support its use of the Shin Bet for this purpose. During this discussion, it turned out that the contact tracing data presented to support the move was false.

During the debate at Israel’s foreign affairs and defense committee, a top lawyer for the Health Ministry admitted that the data provided to the committee was partial and failed to provide an accurate overview regarding the success or failure of the contact tracing program.

According to Talia Agmon, the deputy attorney general for the ministry, some of the data was confidential and could not be presented. In other words, the committee voted and reaffirmed surveillance on Israeli citizens by the Shin Bet based on partial or even misleading data. Moreover, the health ministry now also says it cannot provide any details about how the data is even calculated.

The top lawyer for the committee, Miri Frenkel Short, said that at the beginning of October they first noticed issues with the data being provided to the lawmakers. The committee then asked for the exact number of those infected by the virus during the month of October and the number of them identified through the contact tracing program. However, that information was not found in the tables.

Initially, the committee was told, this data yielded extremely high numbers – as it flagged every person who came in contact with a confirmed coronavirus case. The calculation system was then changed and only after the program’s 15th week was a new method deployed.

At the time, the percentage of success for this tool in spotting Israelis tested for coronavirus who wind up testing positive was only 13.5%.

Over the past nine months, the committee was repeatedly asked to renew the Shin Bet’s mandate to use contact tracing against citizens – and the mandate was renewed every time. During this time, experts brought in to consult on the contact tracing warned that the Shin Bet was not being transparent. They also warned that the data failed to allow a clear understanding of the program’s efficiency and failed to help understand who was ill. 

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 found 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, at some point, the ministry provided the committee a hypothetical number for the overall count of 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 was not clear how the ministry had determined that hypothetical figure.

‘Concerning for citizens’

According to Dr. Anat Ben David, a social scientist who researches technology for Israel’s Open University, “from the first time contact tracing data was being presented by the Health Ministry, we warned the foreign affairs committee about its problematic nature and the fact that this data could not provide a clear way to calculate or even understand how efficient the tracing by the Shin Bet is.”

Ben David also noted that “the data that is presented is vague, makes use of categories that are overlapping, missing or just inconsistent. Moreover, the changes made to the way the data is calculated was also done without transparency, so it became impossible to gauge their value overtime.”

Naama Metrso, who heads Privacy Israel, a watchdog, said that “the fact that the Shin Bet surveillance is based on erroneous data, part of which is confidential, should concern every citizen in the country. The data presented to this committee until November was used by professionals experts and lawmakers in deciding on a measure that deals a harsh unprecedented blow to civil liberties, first and foremost the right to privacy.”

During the debate, Agmon, the health ministry’s deputy legal adviser, attempted to explain the issue of the data, claiming the ministry provided information as is required by the law. She claimed, for example, that data about those already confirmed to be infected with the virus was required to be confidential.

Frenkel-Shor, the attorney for the committee, criticized the representative from the ministry for what she claimed was a liberal reading of the Shin Bet tracking law and for not providing a clear explanation to the committee.

“The point of the law is to gauge efficiency,” she said. “Even when you changed the manner the data was calculated, you needed to make that clear to us. There was no need for us to take hundreds of hours to figure out what happened.”

In summation, she said that “the law is clear: You need to give us the raw reports so we can draw conclusions. We don’t know how to analyze the data and we need you to explain and tell us if there is any issue or caveat. The way the data was presented was actually your analysis [not the raw data] and this committee did not understand that.”

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