Better Health Through Mass Surveillance?

Israeli authorities want to spy on people with the coronavirus.

A mass prayer at the Western Wall for coronavirus patients
A mass prayer at the Western Wall for coronavirus patients in Jerusalem's Old City on Feb. 16. Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israel has long pushed the limits of democratic norms in its fight against the Palestinians, demolishing the family homes of militants, assassinating suspects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and holding detainees for months or years without trial.

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israel has long pushed the limits of democratic norms in its fight against the Palestinians, demolishing the family homes of militants, assassinating suspects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and holding detainees for months or years without trial.

Now, in the name of public health and limiting the spread of the new coronavirus, Israel has moved to curb the civil liberties of its own citizens.

A new government measure would allow the General Security Service, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency also known as the Shin Bet, to track Israelis with the virus as well as individuals exposed to them.

Likening the struggle to contain the coronavirus to a fight against terrorism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said health officials asked him to deploy “digital” techniques “used in the fight against terror” that had never been authorized for use among Israeli citizens.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

“It’s difficult to locate this enemy, because it’s stealthy,” he said in a press conference on Saturday night. “But there’s no choice, because we’re fighting a war that requires special actions.”

The declaration spurred a wave of pushback from politicians, civil rights activists, and public health experts, who said the government was taking the fight against COVID-19 too far.

Though Israel has earned praise for imposing aggressive travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines to fight the coronavirus, legal experts said that deploying the digital spying tactics would provide only a marginal help while disproportionately injuring privacy.

The government’s plan risks moving Israel toward a “surveillance democracy,” warned Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, in the same way that the Patriot Act after the 9/11 terrorist attacks widened U.S. government spying on individuals and allowed access to phone records,

“This is a disturbing step. It’s absolutely a 9/11 moment. We all know what happened afterward,” she said.

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In his address to the nation, Netanyahu mentioned Taiwan’s successful use of cell phone data to enforce quarantines. Singapore’s authoritarian government has also marshaled technological surveillance methods to control the virus. China has relied on face recognition technology. Israel, which has cultivated a reputation for technology innovation, is known as a breeding ground for start-ups that specialize both in cybersecurity and snooping.

The new measure would specifically allow Israel to pull phone data from a patient who tests positive for the coronavirus, chart the places the person visited in the preceding days or weeks, and compile a list of people the patient had contact with. Authorities would use the information to inform people they may have been exposed to a carrier of the virus and order them into quarantine.

The surveillance measure would also allow officials a way to enforce the quarantine orders.

Altshuler warned that the government should not hand over the cell phone data access of patients to the Shin Bet, because the agency falls under the authority of the prime minister and has no public oversight. The information should be limited to health authorities and law enforcement, which are subject to oversight.

“What made me feel very uncomfortable is the comparison that Netanyahu made between fighting terror and the coronavirus,” she said. “If you include a pandemic as a national security issue—even though there’s going to be an economic crisis, and an educational crisis—you open up a door, or you create a slippery slope which we don’t know where it’s going to stop.”

Under Israeli telecommunications law, law enforcement can gain access to information from cellular networks with a court-approved warrant. Those laws have not been updated with provisions protecting data privacy like the regulations that went into effect in the European Union in 2018, Altshuler said. (The Israeli law does not apply to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, where Israeli authorities are believed to conduct widespread surveillance without warrants.)

Netanyahu’s proposal is backed by Israel’s health ministry. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 13 News, the health ministry’s Director-General Moshe Bar Siman Tov said that the danger to public health and Israel’s medical system justified the unusual step.

“In these very unusual times, we need to use all of the means we have,” Bar Siman Tov said. “We need to use many different steps to find out who are the sick people, who they came into contact with—in order to put them into quarantine. The way to get a virus outbreak under control is to swiftly reach the sick and isolate them.”

On Sunday evening, after several hours of discussion, the Israeli cabinet approved an emergency order to give the Shin Bet the surveillance authority—even without a court order. The measure requires the approval of the Israeli parliament’s subcommittee on intelligence and secret services, which began discussing the proposal on Monday but did not take a final vote.

But in an address on Monday night, Netanyahu said the cabinet would approve an emergency order granting the Shin Bet access for 30 days—effectively sidestepping the parliamentary approval.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the move would amount to extending the power of the Shin Bet to a non-security-related issue and would mark a “dangerous precedent.” Avner Pinchuk, a lawyer with the organization, said it would contradict recent rulings by Israel’s Supreme Court that have narrowed the scope of what justifies infringing on civil rights for the purposes of national security. The issue is especially sensitive given Israel’s experience as a democracy that faces ongoing security threats.

“The powers of the [Shin Bet] are limited to national security,” he said. “It’s quite dangerous when you start to enlarge the scope of the threats to national security—especially in Israel, because we have historically thought of ourselves as a nation in uniform.”

Rights groups called on the government to provide more information about what limits would be imposed on the use of the information, who would have access to it, and for how long.

“This is true insanity. It’s Big Brother on steroids,” tweeted Raviv Drucker, an investigative journalist and freedom-of-information activist. “We must not allow the government to take such a dictator-like step in this way. Taiwan is not the example that we should aspire to emulate.”

Revital Swid, a lawyer and a former parliament member of the left-wing Labor Party, tweeted that the proposal is “draconian” and injured individual privacy “on every possible level.”

The number of Israeli coronavirus patients reached 298 on Monday, a sharp rise from the previous day, according to the Haaretz newspaper. After closing schools and banning public gatherings of more than 10 individuals, Netanyahu announced on Monday a drastic reduction of private sector and public sector activity.

On Monday, members of Israel’s newly elected parliament were sworn in, but only in small groups—to prevent the spread of the virus. Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which was scheduled to open on Tuesday, was delayed by two months after Justice Minister Amir Ohana ordered judicial hearings temporarily postponed. The decision was decried by the prime minister’s political opponents.

Nadav Davidovitch, the director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University, said officials should be focusing on widening testing and improving protection for health care workers instead of focusing on surveillance measures. He said the drastic measure could undermine public confidence in the government’s efforts to bring the virus under control.

“Focus first on the traditional public health epidemiological data collection,” he said. “There is always a temptation to go to high-tech solutions, but without the proper transparency, checks, and balances, you can lose the public. And this is very dangerous.”

Davidovitch warned against portraying a public health problem as a security threat.

“That’s very problematic framing,” he said. “At the end of the day, you have a sick person. Is public health about the health of people and solidarity with them, or about protecting ‘us’ from ‘them?’”

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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