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Over 12,000 mistakenly quarantined by phone tracking, Health Ministry admits

Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee hears that more than 20,000 people tried to appeal after being told to isolate by Shin Bet contact tracing program

Israelis in Tel Aviv, on July 14, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis in Tel Aviv, on July 14, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Thousands of Israelis were mistakenly forced into quarantine by a contact tracing program that gives the Shin Bet security agency access to the phones of confirmed coronavirus carriers, a Knesset committee heard Tuesday.

In the first week of the renewal of the Shin Bet tracing system last month, tens of thousands of people in Israel received text messages warning them that they had been in contact with a confirmed carrier of the coronavirus.

Under Israeli law, those in contact with a confirmed carrier must quarantine for two weeks or face hefty fines or even jail time.

Tens of thousands of Israelis attempted to appeal after the phone tracking system identified them as needing to quarantine and about half the appeals were upheld, Ayelet Grinbaum, who was representing the Health Ministry at the hearing, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“We approved 54% of them to leave solitary confinement, close to 12,000 people,” Grinbaum said.

She said almost all calls to a Health Ministry hotline were by people seeking to appeal the quarantine order.

People at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on July 14, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to the Kan public broadcaster, around 12,000 people were told they did not need to quarantine after speaking with someone at the Health Ministry call center, and 700 more had their appeals upheld after further investigation.

The government relaunched the Shin Bet phone tracking program last month in response to rising infection rates, but a growing number of people said 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 six feet 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. An appeals process was mandated by the law passed in the Knesset permitting the mass-tracking.

However, Grinbaum said that the situation was improving.

“Yesterday the waiting time on the phone was 15 minutes. If someone updates us that they were at home and not at the place they were alleged to be, the call center can permit them to be released from isolation,” she said.

Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman attends a Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on November 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman told the cabinet last month that the technologies employed by the agency were intended for counterterrorism operations, and were not meant to be used to track Israeli citizens en masse.

Argaman had reportedly expressed opposition to the renewal of the program, which was phased out in April after the Knesset decided to stop it in the wake of a High Court of Justice ruling that such a massive breach of Israelis’ privacy rights must be anchored in formal legislation.

It was renewed for a three-week period on July 1 in the wake of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

During that period the legislature was to work to set in place more permanent legislation regulating the use of Shin Bet tools to fight the pandemic. Legislators have said such legislation will impose more stringent checks and privacy protections on the tracking program.

The program has faced criticism from privacy and rights groups, but has been praised by officials as helping to stem the virus’s spread by providing the government with the ability to notify Israelis if they were in contact with confirmed virus carriers.

Israelis notified by the program are required to enter into self-isolation for two weeks.

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