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Overruling cabinet, Knesset decides to let Shin Bet COVID tracking expire

Committee head says that with virus spread ebbing, program’s contribution is ‘negligible,’ but open to renewing it if data changes

People walk on Jaffa street in downtown Jerusalem on March 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People walk on Jaffa street in downtown Jerusalem on March 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee rejected on Monday a cabinet decision to enable the continued use of the Shin Bet security service’s controversial phone tracking program, designed to detect coronavirus carriers and those who came in contact with them.

Earlier in March, ministers had passed a decision to allow the continued use of the tracking program for two more weeks, but the Knesset committee dismissed any further extension, with four members voting against the surveillance and three supporting it.

If there is no new decision on the matter in the coming day, the government will no longer be able to use the security agency in its pandemic response.

MK Zvi Hauser, chair of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said, “Shin Bet tracking has a negligible contribution to curbing the pandemic.”

Zvi Hauser, a member of the New Hope political party speaks at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group in Jerusalem, on March 14, 2021. ( Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Given that the extent of the [virus] spread has reduced significantly, and the Shin Bet tracking is used on less than 15 percent of cases, there is no significant contribution in continuing [the use of] the Shin Bet tracking in the fight against the coronavirus,” Hauser said.

“Should the infection increase, the government can at any time decide to renew the tracking program, and the committee will discuss the request,” he added.

The High Court of Justice ruled on March 1 that the tracking program could be used only as a “complementary tool only” in individual cases of those who refuse to cooperate or who fail to provide details of their contacts.

The program has faced criticism from privacy and rights groups but has been praised by officials, who said it helped to stem the spread of the virus by providing the government with the ability to notify Israelis if they were in contact with confirmed virus carriers.

Under an agreement between them, the Health Ministry sends the Shin Bet the names, ID numbers, and contact details of those diagnosed with COVID-19.

The security agency could then go back through two weeks of data to determine what cellphones were within a two-meter (six-foot) radius of the sick person for more than 15 minutes. The owners of those phones were then alerted and ordered to self-quarantine.

Hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the Coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Tzfat on February 4, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said on Monday that 128 people were diagnosed with COVID-19 on Sunday and an additional 50 people were diagnosed since midnight, bringing to 832,012 the total number of cases in Israel since the outset of the pandemic.

The number of active cases stood at 9,248. Sunday’s results, which came from 11,482 tests, represented a positive infection rate of 1.2 percent — the lowest rate recorded in nine months.

The number of serious cases on Monday stood at 467, the lowest since December, after it climbed to an all-time high of 1,201 in mid-January.

In a further indication of shrinking infections, the virus’s basic reproduction number, representing the average number of people each virus carrier infects, was given as 0.55. Any figure under 1 means the outbreak is abating. The figure represents the situation as of 10 days ago due to the incubation period.

The death toll stood Monday morning at 6,194.

Over 5.2 million Israelis have received their first vaccine shot and over 4.7 million have gotten the second shot, out of a population of 9 million. Around 3 million Israelis are not currently eligible to be vaccinated, including those younger than 16 and many of those who have recovered from COVID-19, among others.

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