High Court lets Shin Bet continue phone tracking now Knesset oversight in place
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High Court lets Shin Bet continue phone tracking now Knesset oversight in place

But justices warn permission for use of cell data to help stem virus spread and enforce quarantine orders will be rescinded if regulatory legislation not advanced soon

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Israeli police officers seen raiding the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, closing shops and dispersing public gatherings in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, March 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli police officers seen raiding the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, closing shops and dispersing public gatherings in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, March 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice on Tuesday lifted an injunction that barred the Shin Bet security service from tracking Israelis to keep tabs on coronavirus outbreak, and that prevented the police from acting on that data to enforce quarantine orders.

After rights groups petitioned against the mass surveillance program last week, Israel’s top legal body warned that it would shutter the Shin Bet program if parliamentary oversight was not in place by Tuesday.

The Knesset re-opened Monday, after being shut down on the orders of Speaker Yuli Edelstein since last Wednesday, and the Clandestine Services Subcommittee was established, allowing the court to lift the injunction placed against the security agency.

As for the police, which had been told to hold off on its use of cellphone location data, the court was satisfied by the state’s vow to legislate the enforcement-by-surveillance effort. The High Court warned that if the legislation was not advanced in the coming weeks, it would once again be forced to intervene.

The judges noted that, given the additional government restrictions expected to be approved to further curb movement, the surveillance should be used as little as possible to minimize privacy violations.

Israeli police officers close shops following the government decision, at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv on March 22, 2020.(Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Following Tuesday’s ruling, the minority rights group Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel each issued statements applauding the steps the court had taken to ensure that surveillance would not move forward without parliamentary oversight.

With the injunction removed, the Shin Bet will be able to digitally track the movements of Israelis to keep tabs on the spread of the coronavirus.

The tracking, which uses cell phone location data, aims to alert and order into quarantine people who were within two meters, for 10 minutes or more, someone infected with the virus within the past two weeks.

The new measures use cyber tracking technology previously only permitted for surveilling terror suspects.

Rights groups and political activists had panned the Likud-led government for instituting the policy, noting that the continuing political deadlock in the Knesset had prevented the establishment of parliamentary committees to oversee the unprecedented new surveillance powers.

Illustrative: Supreme Court President Esther Hayut (C) arrives for a High Court preliminary hearing on whether a lawmaker facing criminal indictment can be tapped to form a coalition, December 31, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The court’s decision last Thursday to issue an injunction acknowledged the government’s claim that mass surveillance is a necessary part of the broader effort to stem the outbreak. But it forced a choice on the political echelon between the battle against the virus and the political machinations that have prevented the establishment of Knesset committees over the past week.

“If the Knesset does not establish the relevant committee to enable parliamentary oversight of these [emergency] ordinances, no use can be made of the powers granted in them [after Tuesday at noon] and until a different decision is made,” the ruling said.

That decision allowed the Shin Bet to continue tracking the movements of Israelis for the following five days and to identify those who came in contact with known virus carriers — but forbid the Israel Police from acting on that information.

A day before the ruling, the Health Ministry announced it had begun using the Shin Bet’s mass surveillance tools to retrace the movements of coronavirus carriers and had already informed 400 people in contact with them that they must enter quarantine.

Several European nations, including the UK, Germany and Italy, are evaluating using similar tools to track movements of virus carriers and the people they come in contact with.

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