High Court limits Shin Bet coronavirus surveillance to those who won’t cooperate

Judges rule mass tracking program can only be used as a ‘complementary tool’ starting March 14; deputy health minister slams ruling as ‘crime against the health of Israelis’

A man in a protective mask passes another man talking on his mobile phone at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, December 23, 2020. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)
A man in a protective mask passes another man talking on his mobile phone at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, December 23, 2020. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

The High Court of Justice ruled on Monday that the Shin Bet security service’s controversial phone tracking program, designed to detect coronavirus carriers and those who came in contact with them, can only be used for those who don’t cooperate with epidemiological investigations.

After four rights groups petitioned against the mass surveillance program, the court ruled that starting March 14 the security agency’s authority will be limited to using its tracking as a “complementary tool only,” for individual cases, as necessary.

The ruling by Israel’s top court stated the security agency will not be able to conduct epidemiological investigations “in a sweeping manner,” but instead only in individual cases of those refusing to cooperate or failing to provide details of their contacts.

Last year the Knesset passed into law a bill authorizing the Shin Bet security service to use cellphone data and other sensitive information to track Israelis who contract the coronavirus and those they are in contact with.

Illustrative: Justices arrive for a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on February 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The government justified the severe violation of fundamental rights due to the serious and immediate danger posed to the public by the spread of the coronavirus, and there was a fear expressed at the beginning that ‘with the passage of time, the temporary may become permanent,'” the judges said in their ruling on Monday.

“We must strive tirelessly and do whatever it takes to stop the need for assistance from the country’s preventive security body in areas not at its core,” the judges wrote, referring to the Shin Bet.

The program has faced criticism from privacy and rights groups but has been 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.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch slammed the court’s ruling as a “crime against the health of Israeli citizens,” claiming that the tracking saved the lives of over 500,000 people. Kisch did not explain how that figure had been reached.

MK Yoav Kisch, then chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee at the Knesset, on July 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But the Association for Civil Rights in Israel announced, “It took a year, but we are very happy to announce that surveillance and tracking will be restricted.”

Under an agreement between them, the Health Ministry sends the Shin Bet the names, ID numbers, and contact details of those diagnosed with COVID-19.

The security agency can then go back through two weeks of data to determine what cellphones were within a two-meter (six-foot) radius of the sick person for more than 15 minutes. They are then alerted and ordered to self-quarantine.

Last month, around 65,000 unvaccinated Israelis who were supposed to enter coronavirus quarantine were not ordered to do due to a technical mishap. A similar case occurred in January when some 144,000 Israelis confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 were not notified of the tracking conducted by the Shin Bet.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry on Monday said that 3,089 people were diagnosed with COVID-19 on Sunday and an additional 1,140 people were diagnosed since midnight, taking the total number of cases in Israel to 778,172.

The number of active cases in Israel now stands at 38,480. Sunday’s results, which came from 58,964 tests, represented a positive infection rate of 5.4 percent — the lowest number recorded since December 2020.

Shaare Zedek hospital staff wearing safety gear as they work in the Coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on February 3, 2021,(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The number of serious cases on Monday stood at 742, the lowest level since the beginning of the year after it climbed to an all-time high of 1,201 in mid-January.

The death toll stood Monday morning at 5,758.

Over 4.7 million Israelis have received their first vaccine shot and over 3.3 million have gotten the second shot, out of a population of 9 million. Around 3 million Israelis are not currently eligible to be vaccinated, including those younger than 16 and many of those who have recovered from COVID-19, among others.

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