State asks High Court to allow use of cellphone locations to enforce quarantines
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State asks High Court to allow use of cellphone locations to enforce quarantines

Request seeks lifting of injunction barring police from using cell data to track and enforce whether Israelis required to do so are staying in mandatory isolation

Police officers in protective gear arrest an individual who allegedly violated a quarantine order in Tel Aviv on March 14, 2020. (Screen capture/Twitter)
Police officers in protective gear arrest an individual who allegedly violated a quarantine order in Tel Aviv on March 14, 2020. (Screen capture/Twitter)

The State Prosecutor’s Office filed a request to the High Court of Justice on Monday to lift an injunction barring police from using Israelis’ cellphone locations to track whether they are breaking coronavirus quarantine.

“The Health Ministry sees great importance in the existence of this inspection activity as a part of the state’s entire treatment of the epidemic, particularly in light of the apparent existence of widespread violations, both of the quarantine orders and the new limitations on activity,” read a statement from the State Prosecutor’s office explaining the request, highlighting that extraordinary measures are necessary, with hundreds new coronavirus cases being confirmed each day.

In its request, the state told the court that it had made five revisions to the regulations in line with the court’s expressed concerns, and that Justice Minister Amir Ohana and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had signed off on the changes. However, the new regulations have not yet been brought before the cabinet for its approval.

Last Thursday, the High Court handed down an injunction, stating that it would shutter the government’s new mass surveillance program if the Knesset failed to establish parliamentary oversight over it within five days.

Hours earlier, the Shin Bet security service had been ordered to begin digitally tracking the movements of Israelis in an effort to keep tabs on the spread of the new coronavirus through the population. The tracking, done through the location data of Israelis’ cellphones, aims to alert and order into quarantine people who, in the previous two weeks, were within two meters for 10 minutes or more of someone who turns out to have the virus.

People run near the beach in Tel Aviv on March 19, 2020 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

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

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

Several groups appealed to the High Court last week arguing that such a sweeping and invasive program required oversight by the Knesset.

Thursday’s injunction accepted the argument, but gave the politicians until Tuesday to set up the committee before the program must be closed down.

The court’s decision on Thursday acknowledged the government’s claim that mass surveillance is a necessary part of the broader effort to slow the spread of the virus. But it forced a choice on the political echelon between the battle against the virus and the political machinations that have prevented the establishment of Knesset committees over the past week.

The injunction allowed the Shin Bet to continue tracking the movements of Israelis over the subsequent five days and to identify those who came in contact with known virus carriers — but forbade the Israel Police from acting on that information.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman (2nd-R) and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat hold consultations on fighting in the Gaza Strip at an unspecified security facility in central Israel, February 24, 2020. (Government Press Office)

The Shin Bet’s new powers “will be applied during this period only for the purpose of locating those who were in the presence of individuals positively diagnosed by a laboratory test with the novel coronavirus, and only according to the classified regulations that were presented to us — at the petitioners’ agreement — with only one side present, and which were approved by the attorney general,” the injunction said.

In the meantime, “no use can be made of the powers granted by the [emergency] police ordinances,” the injunction added, explaining that the government had yet to establish enforcement rules for the police as required by the criminal code.

Late Monday, the Knesset began establishing parliamentary committees after a delay in the vote drew accusations of stifling Israel’s democracy.

The Knesset approved the establishment of the Arrangements Committee, which determines which parliamentary committees will be formed and who will sit on them.

The proposal to establish the committee passed 61 in favor and zero against, with right-wing and religious lawmakers allied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boycotting the vote. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, was the only lawmaker to abstain.

Among the special committees set up was one to oversee dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

“We need to oversee what is happening with the issue,” said Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn. “Many citizens are concerned and the Knesset needs to add its contribution and oversee what it is going one and to assist the various forces doing their duty and provide transparency to the public.”

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