After 3 months, contentious Shin Bet tracking of coronavirus patients ends

After 3 months, contentious Shin Bet tracking of coronavirus patients ends

Ministers halt measure, begin search for civilian alternative after security agency’s chief Nadav Argaman expresses reluctance at continuing to monitor Israeli citizens

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

People at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, on May 8, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
People at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, on May 8, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

A controversial Shin Bet security service program that used vast amounts of cellular phone and credit card data to track the movement of coronavirus patients and those in close contact with them ended Tuesday morning, nearly three months after it began.

The program was launched in mid-March, giving the Shin Bet the legal permission to use its ever-growing databases of location data on Israeli citizens to retrace the steps of people found to be carriers of the coronavirus. The program was designed to stem the spread of the virus by warning people with whom they’d been in contact — within two meters and for more than 10 minutes — that they may have been infected and must enter self-quarantine.

The government has been looking for an alternative method that would be as capable at identifying potential carriers as the Shin Bet’s powerful digital tracking tools, but under the management of a civilian office, rather than a secret service.

Ordinarily, use of the Shin Bet’s tools is confined to counter-terrorism operations and generally requires court approvals. Under the government’s program — which was rolled out as an emergency regulation as opposed to a law, meaning it did not have parliamentary oversight — the security service was allowed to forgo such limitations, which prompted harsh criticism from Israeli civil rights groups and activists who warned of privacy violations.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman (2nd-R) and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat hold consultations on fighting in the Gaza Strip at an unspecified security facility in central Israel, February 24, 2020. (Government Press Office)

The program was eventually subject to Knesset oversight and the High Court of Justice ordered the government to craft a law to give the Shin Bet permission to use these tools instead of a temporary emergency regulation.

On Monday, the so-called coronavirus cabinet, made up of various senior government ministers charged with handling the pandemic, decided to call off the program after having failed to write a bill legislating how it would operate. The decision came after Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman reportedly expressed discomfort at continuing the effort, particularly in light of the current low infection rates.

The Shin Bet program could have run through Wednesday afternoon — having received permission from the Knesset to do so while the coronavirus cabinet crafted its bill — but was halted a day early after the government decided not to press forward with the initiative.

Ministers left the option open to resume work on such a bill should infections again increase and Argaman also indicated that his service was prepared to revive  the program.

Under the government’s emergency regulations, the Shin Bet was not permitted to continue using the data after the program ends, though the Health Ministry was allowed to use the information for an additional 60 days for research purposes, presumably to retrace the path of the outbreak.

Medical staff in the central laboratory of the Meuchedet health group. (Health Ministry)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the coronavirus cabinet meeting on Monday that the government was also putting the brakes on further easing coronavirus restrictions, amid a sustained increase in the number of cases in the country.

“We may already be in the midst of an infection doubling rate of less than 10 days,” he said. “We’ve decided to pull the ‘hand brake’ first of all, to halt easing [restrictions] and to reexamine the issue over the coming week.”

At the meeting, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein noted that 800 new cases had been identified in the past week, as opposed to about 300 infections confirmed in the preceding two weeks combined.

The government on Monday evening reported 179 new coronavirus infections over the past 24 hours, in what appeared to be the highest such figure in over a month. According to figures released by the National Security Council, there were 2,620 active virus cases, with 18,049 infections and 298 deaths recorded since the start of the pandemic.

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