Shin Bet says it found 500 coronavirus carriers with its mass surveillance

Security service defends contentious tracking program, citing Health Ministry official who credited it with locating potential carriers who otherwise wouldn’t have been found

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Police patrol Jerusalem's city center to ensure people are not disobeying the partial lockdown on March 26, 2020 (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)
Police patrol Jerusalem's city center to ensure people are not disobeying the partial lockdown on March 26, 2020 (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

The Shin Bet security service on Thursday said 500 people it identified with a controversial mass surveillance program as having been in contact with coronavirus carriers had also tested positive for the disease, which it said proved the necessity of the tracking effort, despite deep concerns over violations of personal privacy and a lack of parliamentary oversight.

“Without quickly finding them and putting them into quarantine, they surely would have unknowingly infected many more people,” the Shin Bet said in a statement.

Over the past two weeks, the internal security agency has been working with the Health Ministry to retrace the movements of coronavirus patients by using the masses of phone and credit card data at its disposal, which it generally is not permitted to utilize for reasons besides counterterrorism.

“For almost the past two weeks, around the clock, a team of Shin Bet employees have been working to provide the Health Ministry with as accurate a picture as possible on those Israeli residents who were in contact with diagnosed coronavirus patients and who would, by the definitions of the Health Ministry, have been infected with the disease and gone on to infect others — without knowing it,” the Shin Bet said.

The security service did not say how many people in total it had identified as having been in contact with confirmed coronavirus carriers.

Medical personnel wearing protective gear handle a coronavirus test sample at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem on March 24, 2020 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The Shin Bet stressed that its powerful mass surveillance program, which relies on large amounts of data gleaned from Israelis’ cellphones and other digital tools, would only be used for the purposes of fighting the pandemic.

Under the government’s public regulations, the security service was not permitted to continue using the data after the program ended, though the Health Ministry was allowed to use the information for an additional 60 days for research purposes, presumably to retrace the path of the outbreak.

On Tuesday, the High Court of Justice lifted an injunction that barred the Shin Bet program, and one that prevented the police from acting on similar data to enforce quarantine orders.

After rights groups petitioned against the mass surveillance program last week, Israel’s top legal body warned that it would shutter the Shin Bet operation if parliamentary oversight was not in place by Tuesday.

The Knesset reopened Monday, after being shut down on the orders of former speaker Yuli Edelstein since last Wednesday, and the Clandestine Services Subcommittee was established, allowing the court to lift the injunction placed against the security agency.

As for the police, which had been told to hold off on its use of cellphone location data, the court was satisfied by the state’s vow to legislate the enforcement-by-surveillance effort. The High Court warned that if the legislation were not advanced in the coming weeks, it would once again be forced to intervene.

The judges noted that, given the additional government restrictions expected to be approved to further curb movement, the surveillance should be used as little as possible to minimize privacy violations.

Following Tuesday’s ruling, the minority rights group Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel each issued statements applauding the steps the court had taken to ensure that surveillance would not move forward without parliamentary oversight.

With the injunction removed, the Shin Bet was be able to continue to digitally track the movements of Israelis to keep tabs on the spread of the coronavirus.

The tracking, which uses cell phone location data, credit card purchase data and other digital information, aims to alert and order into quarantine people who were within two meters, for 10 minutes or more, of someone infected with the virus within the past two weeks.

The new measures use cyber tracking technology previously only permitted for tracking terror suspects.

Rights groups and political activists had panned the Likud-led government for instituting the policy, noting that the continuing political deadlock in the Knesset had prevented the establishment of parliamentary committees to oversee the unprecedented new surveillance powers.

Several European nations, including the UK, Germany and Italy, are evaluating using similar tools to track movements of virus carriers and the people they come in contact with.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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