Knesset passes law authorizing Shin Bet tracking of virus carriers until January

Legislation requires government renew program every 21 days, calls on Health Ministry respond to appeals from those sent to quarantine within 24 hours

A woman uses a cellphone as people wear face masks for fear of coronavirus in downtown Jerusalem, June 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A woman uses a cellphone as people wear face masks for fear of coronavirus in downtown Jerusalem, June 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Knesset on Monday 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.

In the bill’s final reading, 48 lawmakers voted in favor, while 23 voted against.

The legislation, which will be in force until January, allows the Health Ministry to use the Shin Bet tracking data, as long as there are over 200 new COVID-19 infections a day. The Health Ministry’s will have access to the data for a period of 21 days, which must then be renewed by the government.

The law calls on the Health Ministry to roll out its “Magen 2” contact tracing app, with the aim that it will eventually serve as an alternative to the Shin Bet tracking. It also requires the ministry to respond within 24 hours to appeals from Israelis who say they were mistakenly ordered to enter quarantine.

According to Health Ministry statistics, some 60% of those instructed to quarantine during the first two weeks of July were later allowed to end their isolation after appealing.

An Israeli woman checks the Hamagen (The Shield) app, which was developed by the Health Ministry to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, on her phone in the coastal city of Netanya on March 29, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The government relaunched the Shin Bet phone tracking program last month in response to rising infection rates, but a growing number of people said they were being forced to stay home by mistake, likely due in part to technology that fails to discern whether two people were actually within six feet of each other, close enough to transmit the virus.

Additionally, people said calls to the Health Ministry routinely go unanswered as officials say the system has been overwhelmed. An appeals process was included in the law.

Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman 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.

Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman outside his home on February 11, 2016. (Flash90)

Argaman had reportedly expressed opposition to the renewal of the program, which was phased out in April after the Knesset decided to stop it in the wake of a High Court of Justice ruling that such a massive breach of Israelis’ privacy rights must be anchored in formal legislation.

It was renewed for a three-week period on July 1 in the wake of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

During that period the legislature was to 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.

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.

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