High Court to discuss petition against tracking virus carriers’ phones
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High Court to discuss petition against tracking virus carriers’ phones

Approval of monitoring of COVID-19 patients without parliamentary oversight harms right to privacy, argues lawyer; state told to submit response Wednesday, hearing set for Thursday

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)
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 High Court of Justice on Thursday will discuss a petition filed against government measures allowing authorities to digitally track the location of coronavirus patients.

The caretaker government on Monday night amended and unanimously approved a measure allowing security services to deploy advanced digital monitoring tools in an effort track carriers of the virus, 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 petition was filed Tuesday by attorney Shahar Ben-Meir against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the government and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who all approved the measures.

Ben Meir, who has filed many similar petitions against the government, argues the measures were approved without parliamentary oversight and “harm a basic constitutional right — the right to privacy.”

Attorney Shahar Ben-Meir seen at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on November 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Even a dangerous new virus shouldn’t create a regime whereby the government decides everything and there is nobody to monitor or counterbalance it,” the petition said. “A leadership that has all the power has devastating potential, and emergency times don’t have the power to render other government branches powerless.”

High Court Justice Noam Solberg rejected Ben Meir’s request for an injunction preventing the implementation of the measures, and ordered the state to file its response on Wednesday.

A hearing on the matter was set for Thursday.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz demanded Tuesday 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 wrote on Twitter. “However, it is forbidden to do so as a power grab and without oversight.”

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on January 22, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit responded to the allegations, saying that the move to bypass the 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.

Israel has banned all gatherings of over 10 people due to the virus. Knesset lawmakers were sworn in on Monday in batches of three as a health precaution, following the March 2 election.

Gantz spoke to Edelstein on Tuesday and urged him to allow the Knesset to function normally using video conferencing or other “creative” solutions.

Following the withering criticism, Edelstein said parliamentary panels would be formed to oversee the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The Knesset speaker, a member of the rival Likud party, later tweeted that he would bring the issue to a plenary vote, if the political parties failed to work out an agreement on the makeup of the committees.

Illustrative: Workers inside a building at Tel Aviv’s Tel Hashomer Hospital, which was converted into a coronavirus isolation unit, February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

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.

The Shin Bet will relay the information to the Health Ministry, which will send a message to those who were within two meters (6.6 feet) of the infected person for 10 minutes or more, telling them to go into 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 morning there were 427 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.

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