The night is dark and full of tracking: 6 things to know for March 17
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Israel media review

The night is dark and full of tracking: 6 things to know for March 17

A middle-of-the-night cabinet decision to okay shadowing citizens whose only crime was getting sick or being near a sick person spreads alarm faster than a virus

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 12, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90)

1. We’ll be watching you: In the dead vast and middle of the night Israel’s interim government took the extraordinary step of okaying emergency measures using wide-reaching surveillance tools on citizens to track whom carriers of the new coronavirus may have been with, and potentially warn those people.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t exactly keep secret that he intended to pass something like that, but as the sun came up on Tuesday morning, the full scope of the measures was revealed, sparking a fresh outcry about the likely well-meaning but potentially scary program.
  • Most news outlets point out that pretty much none of the promises made about the program are being kept, according to regulations published in the middle of the night.
  • Though Netanyahu said the data would only be kept for 30 days, it will actually be kept until the regulations expire. “Furthermore, the Health Ministry is allowed to keep the data for another 60 days beyond the regulations’ expiration for the sake of an “internal inquiry of the activities conducted by the Health Ministry,” Haaretz reports.
  • Ynet notes that use of the technology will not require a court order and that the Shin Bet will have access not only to triangulation data, but also any data on the phone aside from actual voice calls.
  • Walla points out that not only the Shin Bet but also the police will have access to the data, and despite promises, it may be used to track down people in quarantine who are not necessarily sick, though only in some cases.
  • “The new regulations appear to belie the denials given out over the past few days,” the news site reports.

2. Just the Shin Bet being the Shin Bet: Kan reports that Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman is trying to calm fears by releasing an “out of the ordinary” missive in which he notes that “only a very small group will be involved in tracking coronavirus carriers and the data will not be saved by the organization,” in Kan’s words.

  • Shockingly, the coverage in government shill Israel Hayom doesn’t mention the fact that the regulations go beyond what was promised or the privacy concerns, but the story does quote Argaman’s letter in full.
  • Haaretz’s Noa Landau writes that the Shin Bet is spinning things by promising again and again that it won’t use the technology to enforce quarantines — which is technically true since that will be the police’s job: “The Shin Bet’s messages are not a help, but a diversion,” she writes.
  • According to a tweet thread by activist Michael Birnhack, all the new regulations prove is that “there is close and continuing cooperation between cellphone companies and the Shin Bet, [and it did not] start today, now it’s only been revealed.”
  • The New York Times notes that “the Shin Bet has been quietly but routinely collecting cellphone metadata since at least 2002, officials confirmed. It has never disclosed details about what information it collects, how that data is safeguarded, whether or when any of it is destroyed or deleted, who has access to it and under what conditions, or how it is used.”
  • Ynet’s Attila Somfalvi, who in the past has outed himself as a government cheerleader, says he’s not worried so much about he Shin Bet holding his data but the Health Ministry: “I’m disturbed by what kind of firewall they have in the ministry, which has not been forced to deal with such sensitive information in the past… If I’m an ambitious hacker, I’ll be sitting on the Health Ministry’s servers. I hope they have a safeguard.”

3. Night moves: Other journalists and activists are ringing alarms about what the government is up to and the way it is going about it.

  • “Everyone in the country should be worried about this draconian move,” tweets Channel 13’s Barak Ravid.
  • Haaretz reports that the way the cabinet passed the measure essentially strips the Knesset of the ability to oversee the measure since it was approved without the okay of the Knesset subcommittee on clandestine services, which ceased to exist on Monday afternoon with the swearing in of a new Knesset, and it’s not clear when it will be formed again.
  • “If the subcommittee had been able to discuss this properly, they would have created oversight. The fact that there is no oversight is perhaps the most problematic part,” former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon tells Army Radio.
  • “The approval of the regulations sharpen the preferred order of things: Before you create a government, you need to re-create the Knesset,” tweets Walla’s Tal Shalev.
  • “They closed the courts — in the middle of the night.
    They okayed tracking citizens without a court order — in the middle of the night
    They allowed the Shin Bet to collect data — in the middle of the night,” tweets Haaretz’s Josh Breiner, mimicking a song from the Passover Seder.
  • “Without oversight, without a Knesset, without transparency. How will you make the public believe you,” he adds.

4. Don’t stand so close to me: That lack of trust is on full display on the cover of Yedioth Ahronoth, which shows people having a grand old time at the beach, some bunched together, some not, under the pleading headline “Stay at home.”

  • “Enough with the apathy and ignorance. To go out to the public square with symptoms of a sickness is sociopathic hutzpah,” writes Oded Shalom in the paper.
  • Army Radio’s Tzahi Dabush tweets out a picture of a crowd at the IDF’s main enlistment center, where teens are being inducted this week.
    “The decision to keep enlisting as normal and induct hundreds of new recruits every day at IDF bases can lead to an outbreak within the army.”
  • Haaretz’s Judy Maltz points out that “touchy-feely” Israel has trouble getting on board with staying away from others.
  • “People in this country – when they embrace, they really embrace,” Hebrew University Prof. Gad Yair is quoted telling her. “There’s no doing it with just one arm. Meetings tend to be close and intimate. It is common in Israel when you see a pregnant woman to put your hand on her stomach. There’s no social distance between people because there’s this feeling that we’re all the same family and we’re allowed to touch.”

5. Go Telz it on the mountain: The economy is pretty much shut down, and now officials are talking about the possibility of placing cordons around certain towns where there are outbreaks.

  • First on the list is the small ultra-Orthodox town of Kiryat Ye’arim (Telz Stone) outside Jerusalem, which has seen eight cases and has 1,500 people in quarantine, according to Ynet.
  • The ministry is awaiting the test results from five additional families in the locale of some 6,000 before making a final decision, according to the Kikar Hashabat website.
  • “It’s important for me to stress, the spread happened because a visitor arrived from France and didn’t enter quarantine,” a community member, who declines to be identified, tells the Haredi site. “Therefore it’s important to spread the message: Those who fear they could be infected should immediately self-quarantine.”
  • Apparently there are fears that some people may still not be listening. A letter from the regional council head to residents urges them to listen to instructions and quarantine if instructed to. “This is not a game,” the letter reads, according to local paper Kol Hair.

6. Peer into the crystal ball: Is Telz Stone our future? ToI editor David Horovitz asks in an op-ed whether the panic is justified, quoting a futurist who says 300 million could die from the sickness worldwide, and medical experts who say the panic is doing more damage than the virus.

  • The answer, he suggests, is somewhere in the middle: “The restrictions under which we — like many, many nations worldwide — are now being told we need to live are radically atypical. Stuck at home with the kids after all educational facilities have been closed, jobs disappearing, the economy heading into meltdown, and with the prospect of this continuing for months, a rise in national grumpiness is readily discernible.”
  • The treasury also looks into the future and finds that the crisis will lead to NIS 45 billion in losses for Israel and 0 percent growth for the year — wiping out predictions of three percent. As for the little guy, many are just wondering how they will make it through the month.
  • Calcalist reports that laid-off Israelis are trying to take out more loans to cover the difference, at not very attractive rates, if they can get the loan at all. “The fear is that poorer households will be forced to deal with existing debt and take on new loans while they are unemployed for an unknown period of time,” the news site reports.
  • Channel 12 news makes the strange decision of asking a kabbalist, an astrologer and a tarot reader when they think the crisis will end, and playing up the answers they get as an actual news story. The kabbalist predicts a cure will be out by just after Passover, the tarot reader says the cards tell her the crisis will be done in July or August and the astrologer says it will go on until the end of the year at least.
  • “As for how much damage it will do,” he adds, “an astrologer does not have the ability to predict accurate numbers.” Duh.
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