The Knesset Subcommittee for the Intelligence Services gave domestic security agency Shin Bet the go-ahead today to continue using Israeli COVID-19 patients’ mobile phone data to track their movements and interactions.
Shin Bet controversially gained cabinet approval for the controversial virus surveillance program on March 17 in a move labeled a “power grab” and a threat to civil liberties. Critics argued that Israel’s health ministry is better placed to handle the data used to retrace COVID-19 positive citizen’s movements and notify others they have potentially infected.
The Israeli parliament requested a six-week extension of Shin Bet’s mandate but the intelligence subcommittee only prolonged the program by three weeks, meaning it will now expire on May 26.
“I see this as the right balance between not using this tool for the entire period and ensuring there is a legislative process,” said subcommittee chair and Blue and White parliamentarian Gabi Ashkenazi.
Netanyahu’s newly-formed unity cabinet is in the process of drafting legislation to regulate Shin Bet’s access to and use of the mobile-data spying technology normally used for anti-terrorism purposes. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled it could not continue to use the technology past April 30 without legislative oversight.
A law governing tracking is expected to be drawn up by May 18 and open to public comment for one week before the parliament holds a vote.
Defenders of the COVID-19 surveillance tool like Meir Ben-Shabbat, national security advisor and pandemic response coordinator, have pushed privacy concerns aside.
“We think that at this time… we need a tool that will allow surgical and quick action that will cut the chain of infection and allow the populace to continue with its life,” Ben-Shabbat said in response to the extension.
The health ministry’s head of public health, Sigal Sadetsky, agrees with Ben-Shabbat, arguing the program is more important than ever as lockdown restrictions are eased across Israel. Sadetsky also reported that of Israel’s 16, 268 COVID-19 cases, some 5,516 were identified thanks to Shin Bet tracking.
Opposition MK’s from Yisrael Beytenu and Yesh Atid-Telem remain firmly opposed to the surveillance.
“If the Shin Bet could monitor the speed of all cars, does that justify tracking all the drivers?” quipped Yesh Atid-Telem MK Yair Lapid.