Israel has approved the electronic tracking of patients using a digital technology that, until now, was used only for counterterrorism.
The controversial measure is raising constitutional privacy questions and criticism while the country deals with its own security during a public health crisis, and as Israel struggles to form its new government.
The tracking tool was pushed through as an emergency regulation without approval or oversight from Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. It will be used on the civilian population for the first time to allow the country’s internal security agency to track individuals’ phones in order find out where a coronavirus patient — or suspected carrier — has been and with whom they have come into contact. The Israel Security Agency (ISA), also known as the Shin Bet, can track the individual based on a national ID number and cell phone number.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s transitional government unanimously approved the measure over the weekend. Insisting that even a slight delay would endanger the country, the 70-year-old Israeli leader bypassed the unformed parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which would normally have oversight over such a move, and authorized the measure as emergency regulation.
“Because the virus is spreading at a tremendous pace, a delay of even one hour in these tools can lead to the deaths of many Israelis, just as is happening with the deaths of thousands in Italy and in other places in the world,” Netanyahu said in a statement. The measure, which received approval from the Attorney General, can “slow down the spread of the epidemic and can save many Israelis from death,” he said.
What’s in the measure
To stop the spread of coronavirus, Israel has employed a variety of tools and stringent restrictions. Public gatherings are now limited to 10 people, leisure and entertainment venues are closed, restaurants and cafes are shuttered, public transportation is closed at night and on weekends, and Israelis are instructed to stay home unless it is necessary to venture out.
But this is arguably the most powerful — and most invasive — tool deployed to date.
The regulations used to approve the new measure give the ISA the power to collect cell phone data on the movement and contacts of coronavirus patients and people believed to have been infected over the past 14 days.
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However, the ISA is not allowed to store the data or to collect conversations or message from patients’ cell phones, and the agency will not be involved in supervision of patients or enforcement of quarantine restrictions. Instead, the ISA transfers the data to the Ministry of Health for handling.
The regulations also task Israel’s police with enforcing quarantine and isolation orders and empowers them to request and receive tracking data about civilians without court approval, bypassing one of the key safeguards in the tool’s standard counterterrorism usage.
Though the police are not required to track everyone under self-quarantine — a number already into the tens of thousands — they are allowed to randomly check individuals to ensure compliance.
A rushed process
Electronic tracking is one of the big guns in the ISA arsenal, allowing it to monitor the movement of terrorists in Israel and the West Bank, giving the secretive agency a picture of someone’s daily activity, personal contacts, movement, and more. But even when used for counterterrorism purposes, electronic tracking requires strict oversight and rigid legal approval.
Gabi Ashkenazi, a member of the opposition Blue and White party who led the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the previous Knesset, ripped the measure’s rush approval.
“The government approved in the dead of night the emergency regulations, even though the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee began to discuss the issue yesterday — without being given the opportunity to implement it in a serious and complete way,” Ashkenazi said on Twitter Tuesday. “It is unacceptable that this is the way in which this is approved. Without parliamentary or public oversight.”
But Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri called the measure “essential” to save lives, portraying the debate as a balance between the right to privacy and the right to life and public health.