A ban from public places, or gentle persuasion? The future of virus tracking
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A ban from public places, or gentle persuasion? The future of virus tracking

Shin Bet is poised to resume tracking for virus fight as a stopgap solution until new voluntary app developed; experts split on how to encourage users to download such a program

An existing smartphone app for tracking the spread of infection which determines who has been in contact with people who have been infected with the coronavirus. (iStock)
An existing smartphone app for tracking the spread of infection which determines who has been in contact with people who have been infected with the coronavirus. (iStock)

Israel’s government has endorsed a plan to have the Shin Bet security agency monitor citizens’ phones to track carriers of the coronavirus, but it is under growing pressure to ensure the compulsory state surveillance program is short-lived.

Voluntary tracking is increasingly seen as the way forward, but there is a debate about how authorities should convince the public to download a monitoring app — with a carrot or a stick.

A week ago, the Health Ministry closed the tender process for proposals for a radical rework of the voluntary Hamagen app, which has been widely criticized for its poor functionality. The ministry told applicants that it aims to get 4 million citizens using the app, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees it as the next stage in phone tracking.

One of the ideas submitted to the Health Ministry involves an app design that would sanction citizens unless they sign up for its “voluntary” surveillance, banning them from some public spaces and transportation.

“If we don’t do this we’re going to have a second wave and a third wave,” said Ido Erev, a behavioral scientist who was part of the consortium behind this proposal, which is being led by the tech company Ewave.

Netanyahu framed Wednesday’s unanimous decision by ministers to back resumption of Shin Bet phone tracking — a move that is now pending final approval by Knesset — as a temporary solution until a sophisticated voluntary app is produced.

“We want to locate those who have been around infected or contagious people so that they cannot spread the disease,” Netanyahu said. “I have asked to accelerate the development of the digital application that is designed to achieve this goal.”

He hoped this would take “weeks,” and is looking to use security services “until then.”

Tehila Shwartz Altshuler (Courtesy of Tehila Shwartz Altshuler)

Tehilla Schwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute, a leading Israeli thinker on media and technology, highlighted the urgency of shifting to a voluntary method.

“We need to work in a different way,” she said, adding: “Many democracies are using apps, and Israel is the only democracy using secret services.”

Erev, professor at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, believes that such an app, built especially for mass contact-tracing as opposed to Shin Bet’s systems that aren’t, will be more accurate than anything in use until now, utilizing more pinpointed information so that fewer people will end up in quarantine.

Altshuler agrees. “According to our analysis of the data, the ISA [Shin Bet] has a 12% error rate and less than three out of ten every positive cases are detected. Among other reasons, this is due to a lack of accuracy of the technology when its targets are inside buildings.”

Many countries, including France, Germany, Denmark, Italy and Switzerland, are encouraging use of voluntary apps that tell people when they have been in contact with carriers so they can self-isolate, and, in some cases, go for testing.

Erev thinks that the government should corner citizens into downloading “voluntary” surveillance software, by excluding them from schools and many public places if they don’t.

Passengers wearing face masks at the Tel Aviv Savidor Central Railway Station on June 22, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry opened a tender for app proposals last month, with a June 15 deadline. Erev, president of the European Association for Decision Making, was part of a proposal that suggested favoring a push to get people using an app.

Ido Erev, a behavioral scientist at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. (courtesy of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology)

The proposal he submitted would  give citizens a green light status, and remove it if they have been in the proximity of a coronavirus carrier. If they have been compromised, they would need to quarantine, and sometimes get tested too, before regaining their green light status.

Erev wants access to public transportation, schools and other public places limited to people who use the tracking app and can show a green “traffic light” on their phone — similar to those used in many parts of China — proving that they haven’t been exposed to coronavirus.

He said: “If privacy is important to you don’t install it but if you don’t, you won’t be able to take the train. Schools would be open only for children whose parents have the green light.”

But Schwartz Altshuler thinks this model is “too invasive.” She told The Times of Israel that the emphasis should be on gently incentivizing people to download the app.

“The way to go is a strong public campaign, and strong positive incentives,” she said, saying that the best strategy isn’t to exclude people from public spaces if they don’t have the app, but to encourage people to download it.

“You could, for example, offer vouchers for stores to people who use the app,” she said. “There are lots of possibilities for encouraging it and approaches that can be tried without needing to think about forcing people to download.”

Erev disagreed, saying: “People will not do it. It has to be something that will impact daily activity — people won’t install an app for, say 300 shekels, but they will act if they need it to take the bus or go on the train.”

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