Phone-tracking bill advances in Knesset, despite Shin Bet opposition

Legislation allowing agency to monitor spread of COVID-19 clears first parliamentary vote 44-32, hours after ministers unanimously back it

Illustrative: Israelis, wearing facemasks for fear of the coronavirus, shop for groceries at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem after it reopened according to the new government orders, June 16, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Israelis, wearing facemasks for fear of the coronavirus, shop for groceries at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem after it reopened according to the new government orders, June 16, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Controversial legislation allowing the Shin Bet security service to track civilians’ phones in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus cleared its first vote in the Knesset on Wednesday night.

The proposal — which is opposed by Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman — received the backing of 44 lawmakers and was opposed by 32 in its first plenary reading. It requires two more plenum votes to become law, which are expected next week.

The bill was approved unanimously by the cabinet just hours earlier, as ministers agreed to fast-track the measure.

The move is the latest in months of wrangling over the controversial policy, which was approved by the government at the height of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak as an emergency regulation, but then blocked by Israel’s top court pending new legislation.

Some cabinet ministers had initially opposed reinstating the surveillance, which is being championed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, because of privacy concerns. However, they were reportedly swayed by rising infection numbers, which are on pace to overtake the height of the first wave of the virus in a matter of days.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

“Contagion has already crossed the 400-person (daily) threshold, and unfortunately indicates a continued rise” in coronavirus cases, Netanyahu said Wednesday ahead of a cabinet vote on the move.

He said a civilian application was needed that would inform people they had been near coronavirus carriers, adding that until an alternative was ready, the Shin Bet would be needed.

“I hope we won’t even have to use [the agency],” he said.

The Shin Bet program — which used vast amounts of cellular phone and credit card data to track the movement of coronavirus patients and those in close contact with them — ended earlier this month, nearly three months after it began.

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

The program, usually reserved for counterterrorism operations, had been subject to Knesset oversight, but the High Court of Justice ordered the government to craft a law — instead of a temporary emergency regulation — to give the Shin Bet permission to use such tools. Ministers decided to call off the program after having failed to write a bill legislating how it would operate, but backtracked when the rates of infection began to climb.

The head of the Shin Bet has opposed legislation approving Shin Bet’s role in the program, according to leaks from the high-level cabinet forum dealing with the pandemic response. He reportedly believes a private firm should be given the power instead.

“I am asking very, very, very much not to start legislating the Shin Bet at this stage,” Argaman implored the ministers in a recent meeting, according to the leaks to Channel 12.

But Health Minister Edelstein on Sunday night said it was “preferable that the information remains in the hands of the Shin Bet rather than a private company, who only the devil knows what its interests are.”

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler from the Israel Democracy Institute think tank said the Shin Bet’s cellphone tracking abilities were limited and flawed, adding that the use of the spy agency provided a “false sense of security” and was a “privacy violation.”

The Health Ministry on Wednesday night reported 265 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours. The daily tally was slightly down compared to the morning’s data, which showed 420 cases of coronavirus diagnosed in the previous 24 hours. The daily case count also surpassed 400 on Tuesday

The sharp climb in the number of cases has stoked fears of a second virus wave and led the Health Ministry on Sunday to instruct hospitals around the country to prepare to reopen their coronavirus wards.

A report by the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center on Tuesday warned that Israel could see a doubling in the number of active coronavirus cases within a week.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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