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State comptroller criticizes government use of Shin Bet tracking of COVID patients

Matanyahu Englman says ‘right to privacy’ must be upheld and that 96.5% of people Shin Bet ordered into quarantine were found to have not been infected

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman speaks at a conference on December 1, 2021. (Courtesy)
State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman speaks at a conference on December 1, 2021. (Courtesy)

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman on Wednesday criticized the government’s recent decision mandating the Shin Bet security service to track those who came in contact with carriers of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

“It’s very important to me that even in a time of a pandemic, Israel and all countries around the world protect privacy rights and act carefully, appropriately and quickly,” he said at a conference.

Englman noted that he published a report a year ago that focused on “the shortcomings regarding the efficacy of such tracking.”

The report found that just 3.5 percent of the thousands of Israelis ordered into quarantine as a result of Shin Bet tracking were ultimately found to have been infected with the coronavirus.

That report also recommended that the Shin Bet work together with contact tracers from the Health Ministry — something that the government has yet to adopt even as it has chosen to once again dispatch the Shin Bet.

The state comptroller said there were many instances where the tracking was incorrect “and many people were sent into quarantine unnecessarily.”

Last year, the Knesset passed into law a bill authorizing the Shin Bet to use cellphone data and other sensitive information to track Israelis who contracted the coronavirus and those they were in contact with.

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee discusses Shin Bet phone tracking against suspected carriers of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, in Jerusalem, November 30, 2021. (Danny Shem Tov/Knesset)

The program faced criticism from privacy and rights groups but has been praised by officials as helping to stem the spread of the virus by providing the government with the ability to notify Israelis if they were in contact with confirmed virus carriers.

But the reintroduction of the program is more limited in being only aimed at locating those infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, Israel’s deputy attorney general Raz Nizri said that there were “many problematic things” about the renewed use of the phone tracking, but added that Omicron was an “exceptional case.”

Ministers on Sunday approved the reintroduction of the Shin Bet program after a similar plan was utilized in the early stages of the pandemic. According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the program is set to expire on Thursday at midnight but is also subject to reexamination each day.

If there is a “wide breakout,” the program will be discontinued, the PMO said, without detailing what that term entails. Confirmed carriers of other strains are not being tracked, nor are those who were exposed to carriers of Omicron or any other version of the coronavirus.

Several coalition members, including four ministers, oppose the tracking, saying it violates citizens’ privacy.

On Tuesday morning, the government approved legislation that would enable the tracking to continue beyond the current Thursday deadline and under a permanent law, rather than under emergency regulations. That bill is set to go up for a Knesset vote in the coming days.

In March, the High Court had ruled that the program could only be used for those who wouldn’t cooperate with epidemiological investigations, and as a “complementary tool only,” for individual cases, as necessary.

Meretz MK Gaby Lasky during a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee discussion in Jerusalem on Shin Bet phone tracking against suspected carriers of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, November 30, 2021. (Danny Shem Tov/Knesset)

Rights groups said Sunday that they would protest again to the top court over the reintroduction of the controversial tracking.

In his comments Wednesday, Englman turned to the government’s exemptions committee — which was established during the pandemic to authorize special approvals for Israelis and foreign nationals to enter and leave the country during periods of lockdown — and said his office would soon be publishing a report on the panel’s performance.

The committee has come under fire in recent months amid accusations that it was flatly rejecting various humanitarian requests, while giving a rubber stamp to hundreds of well-connected travelers to travel, including in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Englman referred to two extreme cases that were only authorized after his office intervened. The first was of a woman who received repeated rejections from the panel as she sought to leave the country in order to care for her dying mother. The other was a young woman who was authorized to do the same, but was told that her four-month-old baby who she was breastfeeding at the time would not be allowed to come with her.

“I tell the members of the current exceptions committee: You are dealing with people’s lives. It is important to learn lessons and provide quick and humanitarian responses to applicants,” he said.

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