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Government okays mass surveillance of Israelis’ phones to curb coronavirus

The government on Sunday approved a proposal to allow the Shin Bet security service to perform mass surveillance on Israelis’ phones without requiring a court order in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, prompting major concerns of privacy and civil liberty violations.

The measure will require final approval from the Knesset’s subcommittee on clandestine services before it can be put into action.

The Prime Minister’s Office said the Shin Bet will be limited in what data it collects and who within the government will have access to it. In addition, under the proposal, the agency will only be able to use the information in the fight against the coronavirus, and the power is scheduled to end 30 days after it is granted by the Knesset subcommittee.

Government officials stressed that the use of these tools, usually reserved for counterterrorism operations, was meant to save lives.

Yet the measure has faced criticism from human rights and privacy experts as effectively any person in Israel could come under surveillance by the Shin Bet, an organization with no public transparency requirements. The proposal also goes far beyond the monitoring efforts used by other countries in their fights against the coronavirus.

As of Sunday night, at least 213 Israelis have tested positive for the disease, while tens of thousands more were in quarantine after either traveling to countries with high incidences of the virus or coming into contacted with a carrier. Due to the relatively long time it takes for symptoms to develop, health officials believe that more people have contracted the virus, but haven’t yet been diagnosed.

The proposal was one of the latest in a series of drastic steps taken by the government — including a major effort to keep people out of the public square — to combat the spread of the virus.

In recent weeks authorities in Taiwan and Singapore, among other countries, have used cellular phone data to ensure that citizens were abiding by required quarantine orders.

Those tools — the Israel Police and Health Ministry already have similar means at their disposal — are not what was approved by the government Sunday.

Instead, the Shin Bet was permitted to use phone data — notably which cell towers the device is connected to — in order to retroactively track the movements of those found to be carriers of the coronavirus in order to see with whom they interacted in the days and weeks before they were tested in order to place those people in quarantine.

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.

“The information will be given only to the Health Ministry, to specific people with security clearances, and it will be erased immediately after it is used,” a senior Justice Ministry official told Channel 13 news.

The underlying cellular data that the Shin Bet will use in the effort already exist, but are not generally accessible to the security agency. The proposal will allow the Shin Bet to use that information without requiring any additional approvals from courts or the government.

A spokesperson for the Justice Ministry, which played a major role in developing the program, said it appeared as though the coronavirus patients would not need to give permission for their data to be used, but that the issue had yet to be fully decided.

Until now, health authorities have relied primarily on interviews with patients in which they detail where they’d been and with whom they’d met in the weeks preceding their diagnosis.

The concern in the government that prompted the dramatic proposal is that as the number of people infected with the virus rises, it will eventually become impossible to interview everyone individually. By using an automated system, the issue is avoided.

Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich, generally seen as a critic of the Shin Bet, was one of four ministers who, along with a representative from the Justice Ministry, developed the protocols dictating the terms of what he admitted was as an extreme measure.

“I can assure you all unequivocally: There isn’t and won’t be a ‘Big Brother’ in the State of Israel, even in the framework of an extreme event like what we are dealing with now,” Smotrich wrote in a tweet, referring to George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”

Smotrich, of the nationalist-right Yamina party, said he recognized it was an “extreme step” that he said was only justified as it would save “tens of thousands of lives.”

However, a number of legal and privacy experts have warned that while it is legitimate for the government to make use of digital tools to fight a global pandemic like the COVID-19-causing coronavirus, the specific way in which it was doing so raised serious privacy concerns.

In a statement, Attorney Avner Pinchuk, of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said the marginal benefit gained by tracking carriers of the disease and finding with whom they may have been in contact “does not justify the severe infringement of the right to privacy. The danger of COVID-19 is not only the virus itself, but the fear that as part of the efforts to overcome the danger, we will also lose our basic values as a free and democratic society.”

Tehila Altshuler Shwartz, a leading Israeli thinker on media and technology, told The Times of Israel that one of her main concerns stemmed from the fact that it would be the Shin Bet responsible for the program, rather than a more transparent organization.

The security service has limited oversight as it answers directly to the prime minister; unlike the police and other civil authorities, the Shin Bet does not have to request data from cellular service providers but instead has its own direct access to it; and the agency is not subject to Israel’s freedom of information laws, meaning that whatever actions are taken with the data could remain secret.

“It is shameful that the attorney general approved this,” she said.

Altshuler Shwartz, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, noted that a number of other bodies — the police, the Health Ministry or the military — that are more transparent and have greater built-in oversight systems could have been made responsible for the effort instead of the Shin Bet.

She added that establishing such a draconian measure when there was not yet a fully active Knesset in place was also a deeply troubling decision.

Altshuler Shwartz warned that by using this form of surveillance, which is typically reserved for counterterrorism, in a health crisis, the government was making it more likely that it would be used in other non-security-related issues in the future.

“This argument could be used in the future for anything, an economic crisis, an educational crisis,” she said.

Andrew Mark Bennett, a doctoral candidate in the Human Rights Under Pressure program at Germany’s Free University of Berlin, who has researched similar issues in the past, said the issue required striking a balance between costs and benefits.

“Is the cost to our privacy sufficiently balanced out by the benefit to the public by finding people who have been near people who have been exposed and putting them in quarantine?” Bennett said.