Despite a clear, continual decline in the number of new cases of the coronavirus, the fifth government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is determined not to abandon the special methods at its disposal, whose use was justified in the unique circumstances that prevailed with the outbreak of the pandemic. The government does not intend to waive the opportunity afforded it to undermine the privacy of its citizens.
On Wednesday the Prime Minister’s Office disseminated a draft bill that would allow the Shin Bet security service to use its sophisticated tools, designed to gather intelligence about terror activities in the territories, to keep track of data concerning the location and movement of coronavirus patients, activities that until now were carried out by dint of an emergency order. This initiative justifies the fears that have been aroused following the lifting of restraints when it comes to the surveillance of citizens.
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According to the government, any scenario in the battle against the pandemic justifies the use of Shin Bet surveillance tools. The government believes that if there is another outbreak, which would bring about a sharp increase in the infection curve, there would definitely be a need for that, and the same is true in the present situation, when there is now a return to routine and a gradual lifting of restrictions in public. The threat of a second wave of the coronavirus, along with epidemiological opinions, serves as a perfect excuse for the legislation, which would constitute an undermining of privacy and give the government a free hand to keep track of its citizens.
According to the proposal, the government would be permitted to renew the use of these means whenever circumstances arise that justify doing so. We should not get the impression that the law would be legislated as a temporary order, since in Israel the nature of temporary legislation is that it becomes permanent. Nor should we be impressed by the conditions and reservations in the wording of the draft bill, since decisions regarding them are likely to be arbitrary and devoid of any supervision.
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If the law is passed, it would grant the government unlimited freedom to instruct the Shin Bet to keep track of citizens whenever it sees fit. The danger of misuse of the law and its expansion for other purposes is a concrete one. Not only would citizens be exposed to Shin Bet surveillance, the law would also grant the Health Ministry the right to keep the information that was gathered for a period of 60 days, “for the purpose of an internal investigation.” Under cover of the public fear of the spread of the pandemic and the fear that there will be additional waves, the government wants to enlarge its tool box and expand its freedom of action.
We must not cooperate with that. It represents an upsetting of the balance between the power of the regime and citizens’ rights. The Shin Bet is an spy agency, and we must prevent its activity from creeping beyond the realm of security. The coronavirus threat, as serious as it may be, is not a security matter, and its handling must be limited to the use of civilian methods.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.