Lawmakers extend Shin Bet phone tracking by 10 days, but voice reservations

Head of Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee urges government to consider economic effect of sending hundreds of thousands to quarantine due to controversial program

Illustrative: The Mamilla pedestrian mall in Jerusalem. (iStock/ YKD)
Illustrative: The Mamilla pedestrian mall in Jerusalem. (iStock/ YKD)

The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee voted Sunday to extend controversial phone tracking by the Shin Bet security agency designed to detect coronavirus carriers and those who came in contact with them, but voiced some reservations.

The approval for the tracking was for 10 days, rather than the 21-day extension requested by the government, according to the Haaretz daily.

Committee Chairman Zvi Hauser demanded that the government discuss the economic ramifications of quarantining many people due to the tracking, and also urged ministers to consider shortening to 12 days the isolation period for those who test negative, which currently stands at 14 days.

According to figures presented to the committee members, 528,966 messages have been sent to Israelis since July 1 notifying them that they had come in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient. The figures said 437,901 of them had actually come in contact with a carrier.

A key tool in containing the spread of the virus is epidemiological, or contact, tracing — investigations that seek to identify and send into self-quarantine all those who may have been exposed to patients in the days before they were diagnosed, hopefully cutting off the spread.

The Health Ministry’s HaMagen application running on an iPhone. (Sam Sokol)

The Health Ministry has a contact tracing app, HaMagen, that was revamped in July, after the first version was criticized for being inaccurate and giving too many false positives.

The ministry’s more traditional contact tracing efforts have come under fire, with reports that its system for epidemiological investigation of those diagnosed has been far outpaced by the spread of the virus.

Faced with the difficulty of keeping up with contact tracing, the government reintroduced the controversial Shin Bet surveillance program that identifies those who may have been exposed to the virus by using digital means to retrace the movements of patients before they were diagnosed, primarily cellphone data.

Although the Shin Bet itself has said that it is reluctant to use the technology, which is usually reserved for combating terrorism, the government has insisted it is the only way to stay on top of the virus spread. The program was used during the initial virus outbreak but then halted for a short period.

Many Israelis have criticized the Shin Bet program, both due to civil rights concerns and because a growing number of people have said that 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 two meters 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.

Sam Sokol contributed to this report.

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