After outcry, government scraps Shin Bet phone tracking of Omicron carriers

With support waning, officials won’t seek to extend surveillance program, but Bennett signals it could be renewed later; education minister calls for all restrictions to be lifted

People shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)
People shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

The government will not move to extend a controversial surveillance program tracking the phones of people who contracted the Omicron coronavirus variant, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz announced Thursday.

The move followed intense public criticism of the decision to enlist the Shin Bet security agency to use invasive technology as part of contact tracing efforts.

Ministers who approved the program Sunday had nonetheless expressed unease about using the tool, requiring that leaders seek Knesset approval to extend the program beyond a Thursday midnight deadline and promising to re-examine the use of the tool every day.

“In accordance with the policy decided in advance by the coronavirus cabinet, according to which tracking will be used sparingly and examined on a daily basis, it has been decided not to continue using them at this time,” a joint statement from Bennett and Horowitz said.

The statement asserted that the phone tracking “contributed in the past week to the effort of cutting off the chain of infection,” as Bennett and Horowitz kept the door open to bringing back the tool at a later date.

“The reactivation of the location [tracking] will be examined in accordance with the morbidity circumstances,” the statement said.

Horowitz, who had been against use of the technology when he was in the opposition last year, tweeted that the phone tracking was always intended to be limited in scope and duration.

“I stressed from the get-go that the use of this tool will be restricted and very short — for a few days — to get urgent information on curbing the spread of a new and unknown variant. This is exactly what we did,” Horowitz tweeted.

“Now we are finishing this because alongside protecting health, we need to also safeguard privacy and human rights, even at a time of emergency,” the health minister added.

A woman is seen speaking on her phone on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, September 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The surveillance program, which was first rolled out last year during the early months of the pandemic, has faced criticism from privacy and rights groups but was praised by officials as helping to stem the spread of the virus by providing the government with the ability to notify Israelis if they were in contact with confirmed virus carriers.

The return of the phone tracking was okayed by the government on Sunday and required Knesset approval to be extended. However, there did not appear to be sufficient support for an extension after several ministers and coalition MKs opposed reviving the program.

“I praise the prime minister and health minister for halting the Shin Bet location [tracking],” Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton wrote on Twitter.

Shasha-Biton, one of four ministers to oppose using the surveillance tool at a cabinet meeting Sunday, also called for other newly imposed Omicron-related restrictions to be scrapped.

“Now it’s left to cancel the decision of quarantining the vaccinated who return from abroad,” she said, referring to the requirement for fully immunized Israelis to self-isolate for at least three days upon arriving in the country.

According to the Walla news site, Bennett was set to meet with health officials to discuss easing travel restrictions, including ending the new quarantine rule and the requirement for vaccinated Israelis returning from “red” countries to quarantine at a state-run facility.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz (left) hold a press conference at Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, on November 26, 2021. (Moti Milrod/Pool via Flash90)

The report said Israelis who are not listed as vaccinated could be required to quarantine at state-run sites upon returning from “red” or “orange” states and have to foot the bill, in an apparent bid to encourage vaccination.

Other policy proposals reportedly being considered include expanding police monitoring of unvaccinated people arriving from abroad and easing quarantine rules for fully inoculated Israelis coming from “red” nations.

The arrivals hall at Ben Gurion Airport on November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel has so far confirmed three Omicron cases and is examining a few dozen infections suspected of being caused by the mutated coronavirus strain, which the World Health Organization has categorized as a “variant of concern” following its initial detection in South Africa last month.

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