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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

Israel to use “anti-terrorist” surveillance tech to track coronavirus spread

Israel is kicking its coronavirus response up a gear with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that the government plans to deploy anti-terrorism tracking technology in order to curtail the viral outbreak. 

“We will very soon begin using technology … digital means that we have been using in order to fight terrorism,” Netanyahu said at a news conference in Jerusalem on Saturday. Justice Ministry approval had been sought, he said, because such measures could infringe patients’ privacy.

These measures are dependent upon final approval from the Knesset’s subcommittee on clandestine service before they can be practically implemented. 

Haaretz reported that according to sources familiar with the policy, Netanyahu is primarily referring to the use of cellular geolocation data that’s routinely accrued by the Israeli cellphone providers of millions of customers in Israel and the West Bank. 

The new measures, will target people who have contracted COVID-19, and use their mobile cellular data to retroactively track who they came into contact with in the 14 days preceding their diagnosis. 

The Shin Bet will transmit this information to the Health Ministry, which will send an SMS to those who interacted with individuals carrying the virus. This will be based on being within two meters of the infected person for 10 minutes or more, according to The New York Times.

The Shin Bet said to Haaretz that quarantine enforcement was not the object of the new measures. “There is no intention of using said technologies for enforcement or tracking in the context of isolation guidelines,” it said.

“The use of advanced Shin Bet technologies is intended for one purpose only: saving lives,” a senior security official told The New York Times. “In this way, the spread of the virus in Israel can be narrowed, quickly and efficiently. This is a focused, time-limited and limited activity that is monitored by the government, the attorney general and the Knesset’s regulatory mechanisms.”

Some corollaries to the data use have been specified. These measures can only be approved for 30 days and the data collected will be transferred to health authorities only under the supervision of a judge, before being destroyed. The data is only permitted to be used in the fight against coronavirus. 

“In all my years as prime minister I have avoided using these means among the civilian public but there is no choice,” Netanyahu said.

In Israel there are 250 confirmed cases according to up to date figures, but the Health Ministry warned that there are hundreds or even thousands of undiagnosed cases. 

Israel Barak, chief information security officer at Cybereason, said: “This extreme violation of privacy mandates careful consideration of who will have access to this information, for how long, and what type of court supervision will be put in place to ensure reasonable and proportional use of this technology. While emergency times sometimes call for extreme measures, this type of surveillance technology basically tracks the geographic location of an individual’s cellular device.”

He added: “There is no doubt it can be effective in determining and notifying a more complete scope of individuals that need to exercise social-distancing, which is key in flattening the curve of the spread, in light of a high likelihood that most people carrying COVID-19 are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic.”

In addition to the new measures, at the press conference on 14 March, Netanyahu also announced a partial shutdown of the country’s economy and public transport. On Sunday, Netanyahu’s caretaker government authorised prison sentences of up to six months for anyone breaching isolation orders.

Netanyahu argued that Taiwan used similar measures to inhibit the spread of coronavirus. “We are not using any advanced surveillance technology. It’s simply tracking based on their phone’s sim cards and their nearby base stations,” Kolas Yotaka, a spokeswoman for the Taiwanese cabinet, confirmed to the Guardian.

Up to this point, health bodies have relied on anecdotal evidence provided by patients through interviews. The decision to use phone data instead, is apparently predicated on the assumption that this process will become too time consuming as the number of cases increases. 

Unsurprisingly, privacy and human rights activists have responded with outrage. In a statement, attorney Avner Pinchuk, of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said the benefits of the new measures do “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, expressed concern to the Times of Israel that the new measures could act as a slippery slope. “This argument could be used in the future for anything, an economic crisis, an educational crisis,” she said.