Shin Bet urges reappraisal of its own controversial cellphone tracking program

Tens of thousands of Israelis have been sent into quarantine in recent days as the internal security service revives its coronavirus contact tracing initiative

A woman uses a cellphone as people wear face masks for fear of coronavirus in downtown Jerusalem, June 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A woman uses a cellphone as people wear face masks for fear of coronavirus in downtown Jerusalem, June 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The head of Israel’s domestic security service was set to meet with senior officials on Wednesday to review the effectiveness of its controversial cellphone tracking program, which has sent 30,000 Israelis into mandatory quarantine in recent days.

The meeting, which was called by Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, comes on the heels of widespread complaints that the contact tracing program, which gives the Shin Bet security agency access to the phones of confirmed coronavirus carriers, is highly inaccurate.

Hundreds of Israelis have complained they were notified that they must enter isolation, despite not being near the locations cited in the Shin Bet alert.

Calls to the Health Ministry since the program was reinstated through Knesset legislation last week have routinely gone unanswered as officials say the system has been overwhelmed. The ministry seemed to confirm it was struggling to handle the flood of complaints, saying in a statement that it had received thousands of calls to its *5400 coronavirus hotline since the text messages started going out, overwhelming the system.

The ministry has since promised to institute a more streamlined appeals process.

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

According to the Ynet news site, a number of Israelis wrongly sent into quarantine under the Shin Bet program are preparing lawsuits against the government.

Argaman has reportedly expressed opposition to the renewal of the program, which was phased out in April after the Knesset decided to halt the program 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 on July 1 in the wake of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Shin Bet head 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.

According to Haaretz, Argaman has previously endorsed the use of apps like the Health Ministry’s HaMagen, which works by tracking its users via their phones’ built-in GPS, and correlating their location history (which is stored locally on the phone rather than shared with the government, so as to alleviate privacy concerns) with the epidemiological data of known COVID-19 cases.

An iPhone running the Health Ministry’s HaMagen app, which aims to track the spread of the novel coronavirus and warn users if they’ve interacted with someone infected. (Sam Sokol)

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Sunday he was pushing the government to develop a civilian tracking application to replace Shin Bet surveillance. Israelis will be required to download the app to their phones to have access to public spaces, he said.

However, apps like HaMagen have had their own issues relating to accuracy, with its officials telling The Times of Israel in late April that it required significant improvements.

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