Editorial

An Epidemic of Surveillance

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Haaretz Editorial
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Two women take a selfie as they wear face masks in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 15, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
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Haaretz Editorial

Under the cover of the battle against the spread of the coronavirus, Interim Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concentrating more and more power in his hands, with neither balances nor supervision, and each day he broadens the freedom of action of the security and law enforcement agencies at the expense of individual rights.

On Monday night, in a teleconference, behind the back of the Knesset and in violation of the promise of the attorney general regarding parliamentary oversight and restriction of the use of digital measures, the interim cabinet approved emergency regulations permitting the Shin Bet security service and the police to track the cellphone locations of coronavirus patients. The cabinet did this despite the fact that the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, whose chairman is Kahol Lavan co-chairman Gabi Ashkenazi, had discussed the regulations the previous day and concluded that they should not be approved without full deliberation as well as public and parliamentary supervision.

Will Israel's cyber spies let Bibi use coronavirus to kill democracy?Credit: Haaretz

There is no dispute that the novel coronavirus pandemic has created exceptional circumstances that must be met with exceptional means, but both the emergency regulations that were approved by the cabinet and the manner in which this was done – by bypassing the legislature – should set off a warning light. All the more so given that Netanyahu holds the reins of power without having formed a government after the election, that the task of forming the government was given to the man who hopes to replace him and that the move was made when the Knesset cannot convene for fear of spreading the virus.

In the dead of night, the cabinet allowed the police and the Shin Bet in practice to track citizens without a court order for the duration of the emergency regulations, which can be extended as dictated by the spread of the pandemic. In other words, in effect indefinitely.

The cabinet did not make do with giving these powers to the police, which is responsible for enforcing the law. It extended special authorities also to the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, which specializes in anti-terror and anti-espionage activities. The Shin Bet is now free to apply everything it has learned in its fight against terror to the general public: At the height of a pandemic, every citizen is a “suspect” when it comes to the disease. Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman did promise that the agency would step in “only as needed in order to cope with the spread of the pandemic and under clear and defined limitations and curbs that were agreed upon with the state’s most senior jurists.” But anyone can recognize this slippery slope: The moment the Shin Bet and the police were given permission to monitor citizens and access to personal information, a line was crossed from which retreat might not be possible.

Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz was right, therefore, when he said “It cannot be done like a midnight heist and without oversight.” His promise to insist on the immediate convening of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, a special committee on COVID-19, the Knesset Finance Committee and other committees is commendable. At this time of emergency, and in order to keep from sliding down the slippery slope, it is critical to maintain proportionality and oversight.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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