Knesset committee greenlights Shin Bet phone tracking, per PM request

Rising infection rate drives urgent push for stopgap legislation while lawmakers work on more comprehensive bill that addresses privacy concerns

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

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee voted on Tuesday to advance legislation that will allow the Shin Bet security service to assist in contact-tracing efforts by tapping into peoples’ phones.

The controversial measure must still pass second and third readings in the Knesset, which are expected to take place on Wednesday. The legislation is designated as “temporary” and will last for three weeks — until July 22 — as a stopgap measure while the committee works on a more comprehensive bill that would impose checks and privacy protections on the tracking program.

The advance legislation “authorizes the Shin Bet to provide limited assistance to the Health Ministry in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus and the stymieing of the infection chain,” according to a Knesset statement.

The bill stipulates that the Shin Bet can only be deployed if other contact-tracing efforts prove fruitless, but adds that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can ask the committee to expand the criteria needed for the Shin Bet to track people should he so desire.

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

The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee approval came hours after Netanyahu called on the key Knesset body to greenlight the controversial program in order to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

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 Shin Bet has sought to end the program, with agency head Nadav Argaman telling 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.

He asked the government to develop a civilian alternative.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has insisted there is no obvious alternative, and said the Shin Bet tracking would remain a tool in the government’s virus-fighting toolkit.

Netanyahu’s decision to move ahead with a temporary bill comes after FADC chair MK Zvi Hauser pushed off a vote on the larger comprehensive bill by a week in order to consider dozens of reservations submitted by opposition lawmakers.

According to the Haaretz daily, the delay worried Prime Minister’s Office staffers, who are trying to find ways to stem a fast-rising infection rate without forcing a new shuttering of the economy.

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

Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Asher Hayoun, spoke to Hauser on Monday and demanded the stopgap law, which had already passed a first reading on June 24, be passed into law while the comprehensive bill was being put together.

In the June 24 vote, the proposal, opposed by Argaman, was backed by 44 lawmakers and opposed by 32.

The bill was approved unanimously by the cabinet just hours earlier, as ministers agreed to fast-track the measure.

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 passed in formal legislation.

Some cabinet ministers had initially opposed reinstating the surveillance, which is being championed by Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. However, they were reportedly swayed by rising infection numbers, which are on pace to overtake the height of the first wave of the virus in a matter of days.

“Contagion has already crossed the 400-person (daily) threshold, and unfortunately indicates a continued rise” in coronavirus cases, Netanyahu said last week ahead of a cabinet vote on the move.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), with Defense Minister Benny Gantz in the background, holds the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on June 28, 2020. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP)

He said a civilian application was needed that would inform people they had been near coronavirus carriers, adding that until an alternative was ready, the Shin Bet would be needed.

“I hope we won’t even have to use [the agency],” he said.

The Shin Bet program — which used vast amounts of cellular phone and credit card data to track the movement of coronavirus patients and those in close contact with them — ended earlier this month, nearly three months after it began.

The Health Ministry on Tuesday morning said there were 714 new confirmed coronavirus cases in the previous 24 hours, surpassing daily tallies over the past month, which have been on the rise. The number of active cases climbed Tuesday to 7,096. Of those diagnosed, 46 were in serious condition, 24 of them on ventilators. Another 66 were in moderate condition, with the rest showing mild or no symptoms. The ministry also reported another death, bringing the toll since the start of the pandemic to 320.

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