It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?
The Israeli government does. And it knows where you are. And who you’re with, and who you’ve been with.
Overnight Monday-Tuesday, ministers approved a controversial mass surveillance program to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus, raising a series of major privacy concerns in the country and claims from some quarters that the government was engaging in undemocratic action.
“It exposes you to a Big Brother in the government, lawfully monitoring whatever you’ve done,” said homeland security researcher Meir Elran, referring to the enduring symbol of government monitoring popularized by dystopian novel “1984.”
On the other hand, it could stop the virus from spreading — and put you in, or keep you out, of quarantine.
Once somebody tests positive for coronavirus, the surveillance data will tell the government who they’ve been in contact with, drawing on location information from their cellphones.
Under the government’s decision, the Shin Bet security service is permitted to use the cellular phone data of carriers of the disease to retrace their steps and identify anyone they may have infected, while the Israel Police is tasked with using location data to ensure that people subjected to a home quarantine remained there.
The Shin Bet will relay the information to the Health Ministry, which will send a message to those who were within two meters (6.6 feet) of the infected person for 10 minutes or more, telling them to go into quarantine. Police would collect data related to overseeing quarantine orders, and monitor and enforce those orders.
The updated version of the government order removed a 30-day limit on the program that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said would be put in place. Instead, the surveillance would continue until the government’s state of emergency ended — not after a fixed period of time — and the data collected would be saved for an additional 60 days after that in order to perform “an internal investigation of the efforts performed by the Health Ministry.”
Attorney Avner Pinchuk, of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that while he opposes the new regulation, and believes it isn’t justified by the health benefits, he is confident that it won’t be used to wiretap conversations, read messages, or access other “substance” from phones.
As a result of the location surveillance, appeals for people who have been in a compromised location to come forward, hoping they remember being there, will become less important. Instead, health officials will contact those who may have become infected, and quarantine them.
“It should help in terms of curbing and controlling the disease,” said Elran, head of the Homeland Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies.
The ministers approved the measure via a telephone vote late Monday night and early Tuesday morning, bypassing the Knesset.
Zooming in on cases
How could surveillance keep you out of quarantine? By making quarantine orders more pinpointed.
Until now, authorities have cast their net wide when quarantining, asking people who were in locations that an infected person visited to quarantine, even if they were not close enough to have caught the virus and even if there was time lag between their visits. Elran thinks that with surveillance data providing information on exactly where and when people may have crossed paths, the government may be able to demand quarantine more sparingly.
Yonatan Freeman, an expert in emergency preparedness at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that this is realistic, suggesting that by flagging only people who were actually in proximity to each other, surveillance “provides ‘tweezers,’ in order to not require more people in quarantine than necessary.”
He said that limiting quarantine cases isn’t just about reducing inconvenience for citizens, but also keeping the country running, by avoiding the unnecessary loss of manpower in healthcare and other key sectors. “It could help ensure that essential workers won’t end up unnecessarily in quarantine,” Freeman predicted.
He said that surveillance will also allow the government to locate foreign nationals who have stayed in Israel despite rules requiring them to leave.
“There are still foreign citizens in the country, even people who say it’s safer here, so this allows them to be located,” commented Freeman. “Deporting is probably problematic because there aren’t really flights, but they can be put in quarantine if necessary.”
Whether or not the benefits justify the impact on privacy is being hotly debated.
As those technologies are generally used solely for counterterrorism operations, the proposal to use them against Israeli civilians garnered harsh criticism and deep concerns over privacy and civil liberty violations.
It also raised concerns over the prospect of data breaches, especially when the election campaign was marked by a massive data breach by Likud in which all Israeli voters’ IDs were placed in the public domain.
Critics have said Likud leader Netanyahu’s caretaker government, which does not have the backing of a Knesset majority, should not be able to okay such sweeping and controversial measures. Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party was handed the mandate Monday afternoon to form a new government, though it is unclear if he has support for a ruling coalition.
Netanyahu presented the surveillance as an emergency measure that strikes a hard balance between rights and the need to fight the pandemic. He said: “The Attorney General acceded to our request and this evening we will approve the use of digital tools for a limited period of 30 days. Israel is a democracy. We must preserve the balance between individual rights and general needs, and we are doing so.”
But Tehilla Schwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute, a leading Israeli thinker on media and technology, told The Times of Israel: “It is shameful that the attorney general approved this.”
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.