TEL AVIV – A parliamentary panel authorised Israel’s Shin Bet security service on Tuesday to continue using mobile phone data to track people infected by the coronavirus until May 26 despite privacy concerns.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had sought a longer extension, of six weeks, as his government advances legislation to regulate the practice in line with the demands of the Supreme Court, which is worried about dangers to individual liberty.
Circumventing parliament in March, as the coronavirus spread, Netanyahu’s cabinet approved emergency regulations that enabled the use of the technology, usually deployed for anti-terrorism.
Within two weeks Netanyahu’s cabinet will present a draft bill to regulate the use of Shin Bet surveillance of citizens. The public will have one week to comment on the bill before it is submitted to parliament for approval.
Proponents of the surveillance believe it is crucial more than ever as lockdown measures are gradually being lifted.
Data presented to parliament’s intelligence subcommittee on Tuesday showed more than 5,500 of the over 16,200 people who have contracted the coronavirus in Israel were found to be infected because of Shin Bet surveillance.
“Although it is aggressive and has privacy (issues), there is no other tool right now,” Ayelet Shaked, a former justice minister and member of the intelligence panel, told Reuters.
She said the committee receives updated data each week.
Opponents say such tracking is not needed because the number of new patients continues to drop, though the death toll is now 237, and committee member Eli Avidar likened the surveillance to tactics used by dictatorships such as North Korea.
The Supreme Court last week ruled the government must legislate the use of mobile phone tracking, saying “a suitable alternative, compatible with the principles of privacy, must be found”.
In March, the Health Ministry launched a voluntary app for contact tracing called Hamagen — The Shield in Hebrew — which quickly reached 1.5 million downloads but has since stalled..
Rona Kaizer, the ministry’s chief information officer, said the app is not sufficiently accurate because it is based only on GPS and information provided by coronavirus patients.
The ministry is planning to launch a version with Bluetooth capabilities in coming weeks, but this cannot replace Shin Bet surveillance because not everyone has a smartphone to download the app, she said.
Kaizer hopes the new version will enable the ministry to reach at least 4 million users out of a population of 9 million.
The ministry is also debating whether to use WiFi as there are privacy concerns.
Netanyahu, under pressure to re-open the economy after more than 1 million people had filed for unemployment, has begun easing coronavirus restrictions.
“Precisely at this time because the infection potential is increasing, we need a tool that will enable rapid surgical action that will cut the infection chain and allow the population to continue with its life,” said Meir Ben-Shabbat, head of the National Security Council.