No okay yet from Knesset committee for mass tracking of phones to curb virus

Subcommittee on clandestine services discusses government request for surveillance of all cell phone users to trace movements of those infected, but disbands before voting

Illustrative. (iStock)
Illustrative. (iStock)

The Knesset’s subcommittee on clandestine services on Monday refrained from approving a government request to allow the Shin Bet security service to perform mass surveillance on Israelis’ phones without requiring a court order in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Although the committee, chaired by Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi, met to discuss the matter and hear from security and health experts, it disbanded before it could vote on the matter.

The proposal was that the Shin Bet be permitted to use phone data — notably which cell towers the device is connected to — in order to retroactively track the movements of those found to be carriers of the coronavirus in order to see with whom they interacted in the days and weeks before they were tested in order to place those people in quarantine.

The Shin Bet would then relay the information to the Health Ministry, which will send a message to those who were within two meters (6.6 feet) of the infected person for 10 minutes or more, telling them to go into quarantine.

Blue and White party member MK Gabi Ashkenazi speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Ashkenazi, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, decided that a proper meeting needed to be held to review the request and its implications, rather than just quickly approving the government request, Haaretz reported.

The matter will now have to wait until a new Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is formed after the establishment of a new government, following elections at the beginning of the month. The Knesset on Monday held the swearing-in ceremony for lawmakers, albeit with MKs taking the oath three at a time, rather than at a single gathering, due to health restrictions on the number of people permitted to attend meetings, part of measure aimed at preventing a spread of the virus.

On Sunday the government approved the proposed surveillance, but it still required approval from the clandestine services committee, which is a sub-forum of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

The phone surveillance proposal was one of the latest in a series of drastic steps taken by the government — including a major effort to keep people out of the public square — to combat the spread of the virus.

The Prime Minister’s Office had said the Shin Bet would be limited in what data it collects and who within the government would have access to it. In addition, under the proposal, the agency would only be able to use the information in the fight against the coronavirus, and the power is scheduled to end 30 days after it is granted by the Knesset subcommittee.

Government officials stressed that the use of these tools, usually reserved for counterterrorism operations, was meant to save lives.

Yet the measure faced criticism from human rights and privacy experts as effectively it means any person in Israel could come under surveillance by the Shin Bet, an organization with no public transparency requirements. The proposal also goes far beyond the monitoring efforts used by other countries in their fights against the coronavirus.

On Saturday, the government announced the latest wave of restrictions, saying all educational institutions would be shuttered and gatherings limited to no more than 10 people at any one time.

On Sunday, all “non-essential” businesses, including malls, restaurants and most stores, were shut down.

Over 50,000 Israelis are currently in quarantine and at least 255 are confirmed infected with the virus.

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