Netanyahu sparks privacy scare with move to track corona patients’ phones

Shin Bet says it won’t use the invasive technology to enforce quarantines; attorney general says measure will be subjected to legal restrictions

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative image (iStock)
Illustrative image (iStock)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday announced that Israel would begin using advanced digital monitoring tools to track carriers of the coronavirus, raising major privacy concerns and prompting accusations of mass surveillance.

Such tracking technologies, which in large part rely on data from cellphones, have principally been used by the Shin Bet security service in counterterrorism operations, not against Israeli citizens who have not been accused of a crime.

“Up until today I avoided using these measures in the civilian population but there is no choice,” Netanyahu said in a prime-time TV news conference.

While the Shin Bet security service confirmed that the dramatic course of action was indeed being considered, it denied rumors that the tools would be used to enforce quarantines, saying that they would only be employed to help authorities track the paths of confirmed carriers of the disease in order to find people they may have infected.

“It should be stressed that in any case, there is no intention of using these capabilities to enforce or monitor quarantine instructions,” the security service said.

Illustrative image (iStock)

Netanyahu acknowledged that the use of the technologies would infringe upon citizens’ privacy, but said that he’d checked the matter with the Justice Ministry.

The prime minister cited Taiwan as another country that has used cellular data to combat the spread of the virus, which has infected nearly 200 people in Israel as of Saturday night.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers an speech at his Jerusalem office on March 14, 2020 (GALI TIBBON / POOL / AFP)

The Taiwanese government credited the aggressive tracking program with helping the island nation rein in the coronavirus outbreak, though in that case GPS data was primarily used to ensure that those in quarantine remained at home, rather than tracking their past movements, as Israel is proposing.

The technology in question — details about which are largely classified — is used by Israeli security services to track people’s movements both in real time and retroactively, allowing them to retrace their targets’ steps and see with whom they’ve interacted.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said in a statement that a number of restrictions would be placed on the authorities using the tracking tools in order to limit the violation of individuals’ privacy.

“As part of the legal consideration, it was decided to put a variety of restrictions on the measures that would be used, mostly in terms of the duration of their operation, the legal oversight of their operation, and the use of the information that is collected,” Mandelblit said.

The attorney general added that the effort would require approvals from both the cabinet and the “relevant Knesset committees.”

It was not immediately clear how quickly that can be accomplished, as the Knesset is not scheduled to be sworn in until Monday.

The head of the left-wing Meretz party, Nitzan Horowitz, denounced the proposal, saying that such surveillance shouldn’t take place without parliamentary and judicial oversight.

“Monitoring citizens with the help of information databases and advanced technology is a harsh blow to privacy and basic liberty. Therefore, this is forbidden in democratic countries,” Horowitz said Saturday night.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a media and technology researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, similarly criticized the plan, arguing that it would be difficult to deny civilian authorities the use of such privacy-violating capabilities once they’ve begun employing them.

“A state of emergency doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to turn the State of Israel into a police state,” she wrote in a series of tweets. “Infringing upon rights is easy, returning the situation to what it was before is much harder.”

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)

The number of Israelis diagnosed with coronavirus rose to 195 Saturday evening. The Health Ministry said two of the sick were in serious condition, with 11 in moderate condition and the rest suffering a light illness only. Meanwhile, nearly 40,000 Israelis were in home quarantines for fear of exposure to the virus, including nearly 1,000 doctors, more than 600 nurses, 170 paramedics, and 80 pharmacists, according to Health Ministry figures. Health officials have conducted over 6,800 coronavirus tests nationwide so far, according to the ministry.

To curb the spread of the virus in the country, all Israelis returning from overseas are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Non-Israeli nationals were barred from entering the country as of March 12, unless they can demonstrate an ability to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The government has also canceled all schools and daycare centers, ordered all restaurants and theaters closed, forbidden gatherings of more than 10 people in a room, and encouraged Israelis to work from their homes instead of their places of business if possible, among other steps.

The number of coronavirus cases worldwide passed 150,000 on Saturday, with 5,764 deaths, driven by a spike in infections in Italy, according to an AFP tally compiled from official sources.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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