State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman announced Monday that his office would probe the controversial Shin Bet tracking of coronavirus patients in recent months, which raised privacy concerns before it ended last week.
Participating in a discussion at the State Control Committee, Englman said other issues to be probed include the state’s financial aid to citizens and business owners during the COVID-19 crisis and the country’s network of coronavirus test facilities, both of which have attracted criticism.
“In my view, such reviews are at the heart of the comptroller’s [work] and it will serve as a real tool to improve the service to the public and decision-making,” he said.
Englman said he would try to publish initial findings over the coming few months, so that authorities can draw conclusions and prepare for a potential reemergence of the virus. Some Health Ministry officials have suggested such a resurgence could already be happening.
Englman, who was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has been accused of looking out for the prime minister’s interests, will not directly probe the premier’s conduct, the Walla news site reported.
The ombudsman said during the discussion that his office’s reports normally focus on institutions rather than particular officials. He also said he didn’t know “what the results of the probe will be before it has begun.”
The controversial Shin Bet program used vast amounts of cellular phone and credit card data to track the movement of coronavirus patients and those in close contact with them in order to identify potential infections. It ended last Tuesday, nearly three months after it began.
The program was launched in mid-March, giving the Shin Bet the legal permission to use its databases of location data on citizens to retrace the steps of people found to be carriers of the coronavirus. The program was designed to stem the spread of the virus by warning people with whom they’d been in contact — within two meters for more than 10 minutes — that they may have been infected and must enter self-quarantine.
Ordinarily, use of the Shin Bet’s tools is confined to counter-terrorism operations and generally requires court approvals. Under the government’s program — which was rolled out as an emergency regulation as opposed to a law, meaning it did not have parliamentary oversight — the security service was allowed to forgo such limitations, which prompted harsh criticism from Israeli civil rights groups and activists who warned of privacy violations.
The program was eventually subject to Knesset oversight and the High Court of Justice ordered the government to craft a law to give the Shin Bet permission to use these tools instead of a temporary emergency regulation.
Last week, the so-called coronavirus cabinet, made up of various senior government ministers charged with handling the pandemic, decided to call off the program after having failed to write a bill legislating how it would operate. The decision came after Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman reportedly expressed discomfort at continuing the effort, particularly in light of the low infection rates at the time.
Ministers left the option open to resume work on such a bill should infections again increase and Argaman also indicated that his service was prepared to revive the program.
The National Security Council on Monday morning tallied 120 new coronavirus cases in the previous 24 hours, bringing the count to 19,128. The death toll rose to 302. There were over 3,400 active cases, marking a sharp increase from earlier this month, when the number of sick had dropped below 2,000.