Knesset panel freezes police tracking of phones to enforce quarantine

MKs raise concerns over wording of bill that would allow program to be extended, leading government to announce a rethink; Shin Bet tracking of carriers ongoing

Israeli border police wear protective gear and masks at the Ein Yael Checkpoint, near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, March 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )
Israeli border police wear protective gear and masks at the Ein Yael Checkpoint, near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, March 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )

The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee decided on Wednesday not to move forward with legislation allowing police to use phone tracking technology to enforce stay-at-home orders for quarantined individuals.

The decision meant police would need to end the practice Wednesday night, when temporary emergency regulations allowing the practice expire.

Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi, who chairs the committee, said in a statement after the meeting that members of the panel had raised significant reservations to the wording of the bill that would have allowed the practice to continue, and that government representatives present agreed to “re-examine the wording of the [proposed] law.”

Blue and White parliament member Gabi Ashkenazi attends the annual international Municipal Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The panel has proven it is not a rubber stamp [like ministers],” said committee member and Yesh Atid-Telem MK Moshe Ya’alon in a tweet.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked, whose party is in the caretaker government, also backed the decision.

“The police carry out thousands of home visits to those who need to be in quarantine, and so the benefit is outweighed by the harm to privacy,” she wrote on Twitter.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel welcomed the freeze of the “extreme” policy, calling it “an important achievement in securing democracy and privacy, and proof of the importance of parliamentary oversight of the government.”

In addition to police tracking, the Shin Bet security service has been allowed to run a controversial program tracking confirmed virus carriers to facilitate Israel’s response to the coronavirus. That program is currently ongoing.

Over the past month, the internal security agency has been working with the Health Ministry to retrace the movements of coronavirus patients by using the masses of phone and credit card data at its disposal, which it generally is not permitted to utilize unless for counterterrorism.

The Shin Bet has stressed that its powerful mass surveillance program is only being used for the purposes of fighting the pandemic.

Under the government’s public regulations, 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 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.

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