Long before the coronavirus outbreak, the Shin Bet security service was secretly tracking Israelis’ cellphones in a clandestine program to fight the Islamic State terror group that lasted for at least two and a half years, and may still be ongoing, according to a television report Sunday.
The classified program, whose name is under gag order, was approved by a team of senior Justice Ministry officials, headed by then-state attorney Shai Nitzan as well as Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, but was not subject to parliamentary oversight, legislation, or any regulations, Channel 13 reported Sunday evening, without citing a source.
Under the program, the cellphones of most Israelis were exposed to Shin Bet tracking. The report did not say exactly what type of data was gathered, though it stated that the security service tapped into databases held by mobile phone companies to harvest information — apparently without the companies’ knowledge.
The report did not say what sort of involvement or oversight the prime minister or the cabinet had in the matter.
It said that the Justice Ministry allowed the service to access personal data of Israelis for an initial six-month period, before later repeatedly extending that term, for at least for 2.5 years — and possibly even until today.
The program’s stated purpose was to crack down on IS activity in Israel, the report said.
It added that even when information gleaned through the program served as the basis for criminal investigations and requests were made from courts to approve wiretaps and other investigatory measures, judges were not told how the initial information had been received.
The Justice Ministry and Shin Bet commented in a statement: “The Shin Bet’s methods in its fight against terror, and in general, are classified by law, and exposing them may cause grave harm to national security. From time to time, legal issues related to the service’s activity are brought for the examination and approval of the attorney general or his representatives.”
The Knesset last Monday passed into law a bill authorizing the Shin Bet to use cellphone data and other sensitive information to track Israelis who contract the coronavirus and those they are in contact with.
The controversial legislation, which will be in force until January, allows the Health Ministry to use the Shin Bet tracking data, as long as there are over 200 new COVID-19 infections a day.
The program was in use in March-April, but was then stopped as infection numbers went down, and due to a lack of formal legislation.
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 two meters of each other, close enough to transmit the virus.
An appeals process was included in the law. But many people have said calls to the Health Ministry routinely went unanswered, as officials say the system has been overwhelmed.
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 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.
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.