Ever since the cabinet circumvented the Knesset and decided to monitor residents’ movements – without any parliamentary oversight – to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, there have been many reports of Shin Bet surveillance mistakes that have sent people into isolation needlessly.
It’s not enough that the decision to allow the Shin Bet and police to keep track of all Israelis this way is a serious blow to privacy rights: This drastic measure went into effect in a hasty process, even though it is a surveillance method never before used on Israeli civilians. Now, on top of all that, errors that severely, pointlessly disrupt people’s lives are being discovered.
The full Knesset is meant to convene Monday and approve the establishment of an Arrangements Committee, which in turn must convene quickly to set up an interim Finance Committee and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. According to a High Court decision last Thursday, if by Tuesday afternoon there is no subcommittee on secret services set up, the emergency regulations that permitted the Shin Bet to collect digital information on people in proximity to coronavirus victims, and to forward it to the Health Ministry, will expire.
Perhaps having those Shin Bet regulations expire wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Let them become a historic milestone, or perhaps a low point of the government’s efforts to exploit the public hysteria and fear of COVID-19 to undermine the balance between the power of the regime and the rights of its citizens.
The Shin Bet regulations gave the Israeli intelligence services, which in routine times are focused on those deemed to be enemies, the ability to direct their sophisticated, invasive measures against Israeli citizens. Suddenly everything took on an aura of a security crisis, since after all if state and public security is at risk, then security measures can replace the civilian systems.
The harm to personal rights – in this case the right to privacy – added to the other restrictions on movement, on demonstrating, and who knows what will come next, undermines the basic contract between a citizen and his country. Anyone who believes that these weapons, once the government has used them, will be abandoned when the coronavirus crisis abates is being naïve.
To this one must add the series of errors, only some of which have been publicized in recent days, of mistaken identity and of “false positives,” digital surveillance style: cases in which people took coronavirus tests that (fortunately) turned out to be negative, but whom the Shin Bet ordered into quarantine nonetheless. Or a case in which a woman waved to a homebound coronavirus victim from the street and was ordered to self-quarantine.
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We’ve almost forgotten that the High Court of Justice instructed the state to use this Shin Bet capability only against people who were in close contact with confirmed victims, not against anyone “suspected” of being infected. The Israeli government should just take off its battle gear and recognize that in this world there are emergency situations that aren’t necessarily security-related, and that are best dealt with by the civilian bureaucracies.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.