'You were close to a corona carrier... Go into isolation'

Israel starts surveilling virus carriers, sends 400 who were nearby to isolation

As controversial tracking starts, people who were in close contact with those confirmed to have COVID-19 are informed by text message they must home-quarantine

Israeli border police wear protective gear and masks at the Ein Yael Checkpoint, near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, March 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )
Israeli border police wear protective gear and masks at the Ein Yael Checkpoint, near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, March 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )

The Health Ministry announced Wednesday it has begun using mass surveillance tools to retrace the movements of coronavirus carriers and has already informed 400 people in contact with them that they must enter quarantine.

The electronic tracking program, which is being conducted by the Shin Bet security service for the ministry, has faced harsh criticism, including by members of the government, and its legality is currently being challenged in the High Court of Justice.

The tracking aims to alert and order into quarantine people who, in the previous two weeks, were within two meters for 10 minutes or more of someone who turns out to have the virus. Self-quarantine for the virus lasts 14 days; thus, if the proximity incident was, say, 10 days earlier, those ordered into isolation would be required to stay there for four days.

The process by which the contentious proposal was approved by the government — without promised parliamentary oversight — also led to allegations of a “power grab” by some politicians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials say the measure is necessary to curb the spread of the disease.

“In order to make the process of conducting an epidemiological investigation more efficient, to shorten the process and accurately reach those who were in contact with a coronavirus carrier, we are starting to use technological tools,” the Health Ministry said in a statement, using a euphemism for the powerful surveillance program.

The ministry said the tracking system has already identified some 400 people who were in contact with known carriers of the disease in recent days.

“In the message, they were informed of the date that they were near the sick person and the fact that they must enter [14 day] home-quarantine immediately,” the Health Ministry said.

Those messages didn’t identify the infected person by name or give any other identifying details.

One such message, published by the Kan broadcaster, began: “Dear Marina, According to epidemiological research, you were close to a coronavirus carrier on March 6, 2020. You must go into isolation until March 20, 2020 in order to protect your relatives and the public…”

After the fact, the carriers were also informed they had been tracked by the government.

In an interview Wednesday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan insisted security services were only tracking the locations of peoples’ phones and didn’t have access to the content on their devices.

“The only accessibility is to a [cellphone] location that can reveal if the owner of that device was in close proximity to a coronavirus patient,” he told Channel 12 news.

Erdan, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, also said he was “amazed that in these days the use of this information is what is most interesting.”

The use of advanced digital monitoring tools in an effort track carriers of the virus was amended and unanimously approved by the transition government early Tuesday, removing many of the safeguards and oversights that officials had said would be put into place to address widespread privacy concerns about the initiative.

The High Court of Justice will discuss a petition against the tracking measures on Thursday.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz has demanded that the appropriate Knesset committees be set up immediately to oversee government decisions in the fight against coronavirus, particularly the digital tracking.

“We are in an exceptional period where, unfortunately, it is necessary to take exceptional measures to save lives,” Gantz tweeted Tuesday. “However, it is forbidden to do so as a power grab and without oversight.”

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man wearing a plastic-covered hat speaks on the phone at the nearly deserted Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 12, 2020, after Israel announced new restrictions to contain the coronavirus. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit responded to the allegations, saying that the move to bypass the parliamentary committee was necessary as the formation of the new Knesset and its committees — following this month’s election — was delaying the process.

Blue and White on Tuesday sent an urgent letter to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, asking him to green-light a plenary vote on Wednesday to form the parliament’s Arrangements Committee, which in turn, would staff the parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Finance Committee, and create a special panel on the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, citing disagreements between Likud and Blue and White over the formation of the committees, Edelstein said Wednesday he was locking the plenary until at least next week, a move whose legality was questioned by the Knesset legal adviser.

The measure allows the Shin Bet to use phone data — notably which cell towers the device is connected to — in order to track the movements made by those found to be carriers of the coronavirus in order to see with whom they had interacted in the days and weeks before they were tested in order to place those people in quarantine.

Until now, health authorities have relied primarily on interviews with patients in which they detail where they’d been and with whom they’d met in the weeks preceding their diagnosis.

The concern in the government that prompted the dramatic proposal is that as the number of people infected with the virus rises, it will eventually become impossible to interview everyone individually. By using an automated system, the issue is avoided.

As of Wednesday afternoon there were 433 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Tens of thousands more are in self-quarantine for 14 days on suspicion they may have been exposed to the virus. Six Israelis are seriously ill; all are reportedly elderly and had previous medical conditions.

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