Knesset panel okays controversial phone tracking by Shin Bet to fight virus

Subcommittee gives approval until April 30 for domestic spy agency to use mass surveillance program to locate potential coronavirus carriers

Police officers close synagogues and disperse public gatherings in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim as part of efforts to contain the coronavirus, March 31, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers close synagogues and disperse public gatherings in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim as part of efforts to contain the coronavirus, March 31, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Knesset committee on Tuesday approved the collection of personal data on citizens by domestic spy agencies, a controversial measure enacted by the government earlier this month for the purpose of battling the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier in March, the government authorized the Shin Bet security agency to collect information from private cell phones to facilitate Israel’s response to the new coronavirus, which has infected over 5,300 people in the country.

It also authorized police to use similar data to enforce quarantine orders.

Rights groups challenged the measure and the High Court of Justice issued a temporary injunction until the formation of the Knesset’s Clandestine Services Subcommittee to oversee the digital surveillance, which was assembled last week.

The subcommittee approved the decision “after marathon discussions,” allowing the “Shin Bet to help in efforts to halt the spread of coronavirus for a month” until April 30, the Foreign Affairs and Defense committee said in a statement.

The high-level security cabinet was set to convene Tuesday evening to discuss the use of the tracking technology, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. It was expected to extend the surveillance program by a month, according to Channel 12 news.

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)

With the support of the cabinet, Netanyahu had ordered the Shin Bet to collect personal information after saying he would use every means possible “in the war against an invisible enemy.”

According to details leaked to the press, this information could allow carriers of the virus to be unknowingly identified via their phone activity.

An appeal against the measure was lodged by rights groups and the country’s third largest political party, the majority-Arab Joint List.

The Blue and White party of former arm chief Benny Gantz had denounced the measure as “a dangerous decision” taken without Knesset oversight. His deputy, Blue and MK Gabi Ashkenazi, now heads the Clandestine Services Subcommittee.

A former rival of Netanyahu, Gantz is now in talks with the prime minister to form an “emergency unity government” to deal with the coronavirus crisis, following three elections that ended in deadlock.

The Shin Bet said last week that 500 people it identified with the controversial mass surveillance program as having been in contact with coronavirus carriers had also tested positive for the disease, which it said proved the necessity of the tracking effort.

Over the past few weeks, 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 for reasons besides counterterrorism.

The Shin Bet stressed that its powerful mass surveillance program, which relies on large amounts of data gleaned from Israelis’ cellphones and other digital tools, would only be used for the purposes of fighting the pandemic.

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

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 cell phone 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.

The new measures use cyber tracking technology previously only permitted for tracking terror suspects.

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