Knesset approves extension of Shin Bet’s tracking of virus carriers

Subcommittee for the Intelligence Services allows controversial program to remain in place for 3 more weeks, less than the 6 weeks the government sought, as legislation is drawn up

A police officer stands guard at a roadblock on a road leading to Ein Hemed, near Jerusalem, on April 28, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi chairs a Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on December 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Knesset members on Tuesday approved a three-week extension for the tracking of coronavirus carriers by Israel’s domestic spy agency, allowing the controversial program to remain in place while legislation to anchor it in law is drafted.

The extension approved by the Knesset Subcommittee for the Intelligence Services was less than the six weeks sought by the government, which wanted to keep the program in place until June 16.

It will now expire on May 26.

“I see this as the right balance between not using this tool for the entire period and ensuring there is a legislative process,” Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi, who chairs the subcommittee, said of the three-week extension.

Cabinet ministers on Monday had backed a proposal for the draft legislation to be drawn up by May 18.

A traveler wearing a protective mask checks her phone at the arrivals hall of Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 10, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

During the subcommittee meeting, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who is coordinating the government’s response to the pandemic, defended the continuation of the program despite privacy concerns and the declining number of new infections.

“We think that at this time… we need a tool that will allow surgical and quick action that will cut the chain of infection and allow the populace to continue with its life,” he said.

He also said the government would search for alternatives to having the Shin Bet employ tools generally used in counterterrorism efforts to track Israeli citizens.

Sigal Sadetsky, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, said the program was necessary as Israel reopens large swaths of the economy and lifts restrictions on movement that were meant to contain the virus.

She also presented data that 5,516 Israelis tracked by the Shin Bet turned out to have the virus, seven percent of the total number of people who were informed by text message they had been in proximity to someone sick with COVID-19.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar and Yesh Atid-Telem MKs Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon expressed concerns about the program violating the privacy of Israeli citizens and voted against its extension.

Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid visits a protest by the self-employed and kindergarten owners calling for financial support from the government amid the coronavirus pandemic, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on April 19, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“If the Shin Bet could monitor the speed of all cars, does that justify tracking all the drivers?” Lapid asked.

The tracking program was approved through emergency regulations in mid-March, but the High Court of Justice ruled last month that it could not continue beyond April 30 unless a legislative process was commenced to cement the practice in law. However, the court granted the government the right to approve an extension of the tracking measures on condition that it began the legislative process.

Under the government’s emergency regulations, the Shin Bet 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 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 preceding two weeks.

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