Knesset approves law allowing Shin Bet virus tracking to resume for 3 weeks

Plenum approves stopgap motion 58-38, giving security agency limited powers to use its tech to aid in coronavirus contact tracing, as legislators work on more permanent methods

View of a plenum session of the Knesset, July 2, 2018. (Flash90)
File: View of a plenum session of the Knesset, July 2, 2018. (Flash90)

The Knesset on Wednesday passed legislation authorizing the Shin Bet security service to use controversial phone surveillance measures to help track down potential coronavirus carriers for a three-week period.

The measure passed in its second and third readings at the plenum 58-38.

The law stipulates that the Shin Bet can only be deployed if other contact tracing efforts prove fruitless, and that the Health Ministry can only ask for its assistance on days where new infections topped 200. But it also adds that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can ask the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to expand these criteria should he find it necessary.

Meanwhile, a team of ministers will conduct an ongoing review of “the necessity of continuing to be aided by the Shin Bet, taking into account the rates of illness, the Shin Bet’s contribution to lowering illness and the existence of alternatives, all while considering the harm to [citizens’] right to privacy.”

The Shin Bet and the Health Ministry will provide the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee with weekly reports on data it has acquired through the program.

Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman attends a Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on November 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

During the coming three weeks the legislature will work to set in place more permanent legislation regulating the use of Shin Bet tools to fight the pandemic. Legislators have said such legislation will impose more stringent checks and privacy protections on the tracking program.

Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair MK Zvi Hauser said in a statement that “unfortunately there currently does not exist a proper civil alternative that can provide the efficient response” the Shin Bet’s tools offer.

“This is a tool that must be immediately placed at the disposal of the Health Ministry in light of the significant rise in the extent of infections in Israel.”

He warned that a failure to halt the spread of the resurgent pandemic would necessitate renewed closures and limitations that would be devastating to the economy.

The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Zvi Hauser (center) votes on a bill to allow the Shin Bet to use tracking technology to identify those exposed to the coronavirus, on June 30, 2020. (Adena Welman/Knesset)

The program has faced criticism from privacy and rights groups, but has been praised by officials as helping to stem the virus’s spread by providing the government with the ability to notify Israelis if they were in contact with confirmed virus carriers.

Israelis notified by the program are required to enter into self-isolation for two weeks.

The practice was initially approved by the government at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak as an emergency regulation, but was then blocked by the High Court of Justice, which said that such a massive breach of Israelis’ privacy rights must be anchored in formal legislation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem, June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Knesset at first decided to halt the program. Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman himself told the cabinet last month that the technologies employed by the agency were intended for counterterrorism operations, and were not meant to be used to track Israeli citizens en masse.

But ministers and legislators were swayed by rising infection numbers, which on Wednesday evening hit a new record high of 980 new cases in a 24 hour period — the highest-ever daily tally.

Netanyahu has pushed hard for the legislation, insisting there is no obvious alternative, and said the Shin Bet tracking would remain a tool in the government’s virus-fighting toolkit.

Criticizing the legislation, Yesh Atid-Telem’s MK Moshe Ya’alon did not state explicit opposition to its contents, but argued that Netanyahu “has polluted the coronavirus crisis management with political considerations… the culture of lying worries me more than anything else.”

Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar said the new law was a danger to civil freedoms. “Shin Bet technology was intended to help keep us safe from terrorism, and absolutely not [for use] against the sick or [for] other crises in society.”

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