Big Brother, Special Coronavirus Edition

Haaretz Editorial
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A police man in Betar Ilit, West Bank, September 2020.
Haaretz Editorial

Under cover of a bill to increase fines for violating the coronavirus restrictions, the cabinet unveiled draft legislation Saturday night that would allow the police to access information gathered during epidemiological investigations and use it in criminal investigations.

Even though existing legislation says that information gathered during contact tracing operations will be stored exclusively in the Health Ministry’s databases and not be used for anything other than preventing the virus from spreading, the proposed amendment would grant police the authority to obtain this information if it is needed in a criminal investigation, even if the investigation is completely unrelated to the coronavirus.

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Granted, Health Ministry employees are still required to keep the information confidential, but they will be allowed to give it to the police if they believe it is needed for a criminal investigation. It’s not clear whether the information police would be allowed to receive will also include data obtained by the Shin Bet security service, which is currently using cellphone geolocation to track Israelis’ movements.

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This bill is a new, dangerous stage on a slippery slope in which the state is accumulating ever more draconian powers to monitor its citizens and infringe on their privacy, all while sheltering under the broad wings of the “battle against the pandemic.” But this time, it’s impossible to justify the accelerating curtailment of individual autonomy by the need to sever the chains of infection. The purpose of this bill certainly isn’t to assist the battle against the virus. Rather, this amendment would harness public health services to help the police speed up criminal investigations, thereby circumventing the legal limits that afford people their privacy in normal times.

In practice, this is also likely to seriously undermine contact tracing efforts. After all, contact tracing requires obtaining truthful answers from the public, and truthful answers will be given only if the public trusts government agencies. Just as the purpose of internal inquiries at hospitals is to learn lessons and improve procedures rather than find people to blame, it’s also clear that using information gathered during epidemiological investigations for criminal proceedings will destroy the last remnants of public trust in the government’s good intentions. Someone who fears that the information he provides might be incriminating will prefer not to give information at all.

The state’s complete failure in the battle against the virus, from both a health standpoint and an economic one, stems in part from the public’s loss of faith in the government. Time after time, it has become clear that a government run by a criminal defendant who’s busy with a plethora of concerns unrelated to the public interest isn’t capable of obtaining the public’s trust and steering the country to a safe landing. This new bill is a big step in the wrong direction. It should be shelved immediately.

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

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