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Israel Approves Mass Surveillance on Civilian Phones to Track Coronavirus

03-17-2020

JERUSALEM, Israel – Israel is conducting mass surveillance of civilians in a new effort to digitally track coronavirus patients through their cell phones.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet passed the emergency measure Monday evening hours after saying he would wait until a parliament subcommittee voted on the regulation before enforcing it.

Netanyahu said during a press conference that his cabinet discussed mass surveillance for six hours and promised: “there would be strict oversight” of this system to make sure it is not abused.

Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, which is responsible for tracking and hunting down terrorists, will collect information from people’s cellphones and deliver that information to the Health Ministry.

The Shin Bet will be able to track the movements of those found to be carriers of the virus to ensure they are abiding by quarantine laws and see who they interacted with. The agency will send a message to people who were close to those with the virus telling them they too need to go into quarantine, The Times of Israel reported.

Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman issued a statement on Tuesday saying his agency will not hold on to any of the information and there will be limits on the surveillance technology but did not specify the limits.

Shin Bet will be allowed to access the country’s cell phone data for 30 days. Those caught violating quarantine will be dealt with by the police, not the Shin Bet.

While many are concerned about the Israeli government having access to each citizen’s phone, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich said on Twitter “there isn’t and won’t be a ‘Big Brother’ in the State of Israel.

However, some Israeli legal experts aren’t convinced.

Attorney Avner Pinchuk, of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said in a statement that the benefit gained by tracking the disease in this manner “does 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.”

Netanyahu is framing the fight against the coronavirus as a “war” against “an invisible enemy.”

As of Tuesday morning, 304 people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. Four patients are in critical condition, 11 are moderate, and the rest are mild cases.  

The Health Ministry said on Monday it was considering increasing restrictions and putting the entirety of Israel on lockdown.

“We may ask people to leave the house less, and only for necessary errands. The government is considering a general closure on all citizens, and if that happens it would mean all age groups will be asked to stay home until further notice,” the ministry’s Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto, said Monday.

Grotto said the ministry was “planning greater oversight for the population over 70, which is at risk. We’re preparing now for hospitals to be able to hold the corona patients who will need treatment, and most of the less urgent patients will be in home hospitalization, unless they cannot be hospitalized at home for socioeconomic or family reasons.”

So far, all educational institutions are completely shut down, including daycares and youth programs. All gatherings of groups larger than 10 are strictly forbidden.

All entertainment centers, movie theaters, bars, restaurants and hotel dining rooms are to be shuttered as well.

Public venues, heritage sites, pools, gyms, salons, public boats, and cable cars are also closed.

Supermarkets and pharmacies will remain open.

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