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In landmark pilot, High Court livestreams hearing on Shin Bet phone tracking

Bench considers petition against security service using data from coronavirus patients’ devices to track their previous movements; ruling expected next week

Screen capture from video of Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut during a pilot to broadcast court sessions live, April 16, 2020. (Supreme Court)
Screen capture from video of Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut during a pilot to broadcast court sessions live, April 16, 2020. (Supreme Court)

A High Court of Justice hearing Thursday was broadcast live from the courtroom as part of a pilot for transmitting some court proceedings.

The court was considering a petition against digital tracking methods employed by the Shin Bet and used by authorities to trace the whereabouts of coronavirus carriers, as well as other petitions relating to the coronavirus lockdown.

Though the idea has been under consideration for well over a decade, only four court hearings have ever been broadcast. The current pilot has been in the works for months.

The hearing started at 11:30 a.m. and was transmitted by the Government Press Office on the court’s website. Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, who led the seven-hour session, appeared wearing a face mask in keeping with public health orders, as did other judges and attorneys present, though they removed the coverings to address the courtroom.

Under emergency ordinances, the government has given the Shin Bet permission to track Israelis via their cellphones for the purpose of battling the coronavirus pandemic.

The tracking, which uses cellphone location data, credit card purchase data and other digital information, aims to alert and order into quarantine people who were within two meters, for 10 minutes or more, of someone infected with the virus within the past two weeks.

Rights groups have challenged the measure as an infringement upon citizens’ privacy.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, center, arrives with fellow justices at a court hearing on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to authorize Israel’s Shin Bet security agency to use cellphone location data to help combat the coronavirus, March 19, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The court has previously ruled that the tracking operation can only be carried out if overseen by the Knesset’s Clandestine Services Subcommittee, which has since approved the program.

Under the government’s regulations for the Shin Bet program, the security service is not permitted to continue using the data after the program ends, though the Health Ministry is allowed to use the information for an additional 60 days for research purposes, presumably to retrace the path of the outbreak.

The court was expected to rule on the matter next week.

Another petition heard during Thursday’s session challenged the police use of cellphone information to track those who are supposed to be in self-quarantine at home.

Other petitions related to the ongoing coronavirus lockdown were also heard, including a ban on holding prayers with the necessary quorum of ten men in accordance with Jewish religious laws, and a ban on men visiting special baths known as mikvehs, for the purpose of ritual immersion.

Hayut had previously announced that the court session would be the first to be broadcast live as part of the year-long pilot.

Although the court had been planning to begin such transmissions around this time, the project was delayed due to the coronavirus lockdown measures. That led some Hebrew media outlets to ask for two specific hearings to be broadcast — one on the dissolution of the Knesset last month by then Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and the other on Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s February decision to set up a committee to probe the Police Internal Investigations Unit. Both those requests were rejected.

“The pilot project for the transmission of direct broadcasts of the High Court of Justice harnesses technological advances to fulfill the principle of publicity,” Hayut said in a statement Monday. “Live broadcasting is of importance in the days of the coronavirus epidemic, in view of the existing restrictions on congregating.”

Haaretz reported in March that five cameras were installed in one of the largest courtrooms for the purpose of the pilot. That report said there would be just one broadcast every month and the broadcasts were intended to cover high-profile cases.

Under current laws, transmission of video or audio from a courtroom is prohibited unless permission is first given to do so. According to the Haaretz report, the law will not be changed but rather permission for the broadcasts will be given on a case by case basis.

Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in a protective glass booth flanked by Israeli police during his trial June 22, 1961, in Jerusalem. (Photo by GPO)

The idea of broadcasting court sessions was first approved in 2004 although the first actual broadcast was only made in 2014, and only two sessions were ever shown.

One of the hearings was with an audio feed only and no video. The session, which was heard by a panel of 11 judges, dealt with the question of whether a person who takes part in an illegal road race can be charged with manslaughter if another participant dies in a crash during the contest.

The other case, with seven judges, which had video, considered a petition against compulsory retirement of justices at the age of 67.

After that the High Court decided to not continue any more broadcasts.

Only two other cases have ever been broadcast live in Israel. They were the trials of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichman in 1961 and suspected concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk in 1986.

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