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Cabinet extends phone tracking by Shin Bet to fight coronavirus

The cabinet on Wednesday authorized the Shin Bet security service to continue for a further week its controversial program to track Israelis for the purpose of battling the coronavirus pandemic.

The cabinet, which met by telephone, extended the emergency order until April 14, allowing the domestic spy agency to collect information from private cellphones to facilitate Israel’s response to the coronavirus, which has infected over 9,400 people in the country.

The cabinet statement said the move was

“necessary to allow police to continue to effectively oversee and enforce the isolation order.”

Rights groups had challenged the measure and the High Court of Justice issued a temporary injunction until the formation of the Knesset’s Clandestine Services Subcommittee to oversee the digital surveillance, which was assembled at the end of March.

Over the past few weeks, the internal security agency has been working with the Health Ministry to retrace the movements of coronavirus patients by using the masses of phone and credit card data at its disposal, which it generally is not permitted to utilize for reasons besides counterterrorism.

The Shin Bet stressed that its powerful mass surveillance program, which relies on large amounts of data gleaned from Israelis’ cellphones and other digital tools, would only be used for the purposes of fighting the pandemic.

Under the government’s public regulations, the security service 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.

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 past two weeks.

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