Shin Bet tracking of coronavirus patients to end as ministers freeze legislation

Shin Bet tracking of coronavirus patients to end as ministers freeze legislation

Agency head said to express ‘discomfort’ at continuing tracing program so long as infection rates remain low; ministers push forward with legislation of contentious Coronavirus Law

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 Shin Bet will halt its months-long program of tracking the movements of coronavirus patients after the government decided Monday to freeze legislation that would allow the policy to continue.

The move came after ministers in the so-called coronavirus cabinet, charged with handling the pandemic, failed to agree on a version of the bill to pursue, and after Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman reportedly told them the agency did not believe continuing the program was necessary at this time in light of low infection rates.

Ministers left the option open to resume work on the bill should infections once again balloon.

Shin Bet is now set to halt all tracking in the coming days.

The coronavirus cabinet did approve advancing the Coronavirus Law, a contentious piece of legislation that enshrines into law government emergency powers in case of a new outbreak. That bill has been denounced by critics as giving the state sweeping powers that would infringe on personal rights.

The bill is a softened version of previously proposed legislation that drew widespread outrage for giving police the right to enter homes with no warrant, and awarding some other powers to the government to suspend normal regulations in an emergency. The section allowing police ingress into private homes is missing from the new version. Meanwhile the prime minister can no longer declare an emergency on his own, but rather must have cabinet approval.

The bill also empowers the government to apply lockdowns and order people into quarantine, as well as giving police the power to disperse public gatherings under the threat of fines or even prison sentences, though the right to demonstrate is preserved.

The special powers are granted to the government for 45 days, with the Knesset able to extend the emergency period every 30 days for up to 10 months.

The bill will now be discussed by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, where it is expected to receive government backing before making its way through the Knesset.

The Shin Bet tracking program was approved through emergency regulations in mid-March, but the High Court of Justice ruled in April that it could not continue beyond April 30 unless a legislative process was commenced to cement the practice in law. The court granted the government the right to approve an extension of the tracking measures on condition that it began the legislative process, but the bill has since seen repeated delays.

According to Hebrew media reports, Argaman told ministers that there was “discomfort” in the security service at continuing to track people via their phones and credit card data under the current conditions.

Nonetheless, Argamon said if there was another virus outbreak the agency was ready to act.

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

The tracking, which uses cellphone 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 preceding two weeks. The Health Ministry can ask the Shin Bet for permission to use the tracking on a case by case arrangement after patients are diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Under the government’s emergency regulations, the Shin Bet is not permitted to continue using the data after the program ends, though the Health Ministry is allowed to use the information for an additional 60 days for research purposes, presumably to retrace the path of the outbreak.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the coronavirus cabinet meeting that the government was also putting the brakes on further easing coronavirus restrictions, amid a sustained increase in the number of cases in the country.

“We may already be in the midst of an infection doubling rate of less than 10 days,” he said. “We’ve decided to pull the ‘hand brake’ first of all, to halt easing [restrictions] and to reexamine the issue over the coming week.”

At the meeting, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein noted that 800 new cases had been identified in the past week, as opposed to about 300 infections confirmed in the preceding two weeks combined.

The Health Ministry on Monday morning reported 45 more diagnosed cases since the evening before, taking the total since the start of the pandemic to 17,915. The death toll remained steady at 298.

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