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Israel’s virus surveillance tool tests its democratic norms

January 1, 2021 GMT
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A man in a protective mask passes another man talking on his mobile phone at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. In the early days of the pandemic, a panicked Israel began using a mass surveillance tool on its own people, tracking civilians’ mobile phones to halt the spread of the coronavirus. But months later, the tool’s effectiveness is being called into question and critics say its use has come at an immeasurable cost to the country’s democratic principles. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
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A man in a protective mask passes another man talking on his mobile phone at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. In the early days of the pandemic, a panicked Israel began using a mass surveillance tool on its own people, tracking civilians’ mobile phones to halt the spread of the coronavirus. But months later, the tool’s effectiveness is being called into question and critics say its use has come at an immeasurable cost to the country’s democratic principles. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — In the early days of the pandemic, a panicked Israel began using a mass surveillance tool on its civilians, tracking people’s cellphones in hopes of stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

The government touted the technology, normally used to catch wanted Palestinian militants, as a breakthrough against the virus. But months later, the tool’s effectiveness is being called into question and critics say its use has come at an immeasurable cost to the country’s democratic principles.

“The idea of a government watching its own citizens this closely should ring the alarm,” said Maya Fried, a spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has repeatedly challenged the use of the tool in court. “This is against the foundations of democracy. You can’t just give up on democracy during a crisis.”

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Little is known about the technology. According to the Yediot Ahronot daily, the Shin Bet internal security service has used the tool for two decades, sweeping up metadata from anyone who uses telecom services in Israel. Information collected includes the cellular device’s location, web browsing history and calls and texts received and made, but not their content. That has reportedly helped the agency track militants and halt attacks, although it’s unclear what happens to all of the data.

Israel first brought the Shin Bet into its virus outbreak battle in March. By tracking the movements of people infected with the coronavirus, it could determine who had come into contact with them and was at risk of infection, and order them into quarantine.

With the contact tracing capabilities of Israel’s Health Ministry limited, the Shin Bet was seen as the best option to pick up the slack, even though its own leaders were reluctant to deploy the tool. The Shin Bet declined to comment.

Officials say the technology has been a critical tool in keeping track of the outbreak and insist they have struck a balance between protecting individual rights and public health.

“We believe that the cost is certainly reasonable,” Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch told a parliamentary committee last month. “We haven’t seen this tool be used exploitatively. This tool saves lives.”

Initially, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used emergency regulations to approve the use of the tool. After the hasty deployment was challenged in court, the government was forced to legislate limits on its use in July, submitting it to some parliamentary oversight.

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The law says the Shin Bet must keep the information separate from other data it gathers for other purposes and that after a certain period of time, it must be deleted. The law also limits those who are able to access the information and stipulates that Israel must present and popularize a civilian alternative to the surveillance, such as a phone app. Israel has developed such an app but it is not widely used.

Critics say there is no proper oversight on how the Shin Bet data is gathered, stored, used or deleted.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh, a legislator on the parliamentary committee overseeing the tool, said Israel’s reliance on the Shin Bet prevented it from moving toward more transparent civilian technology that could have done the job. “We really should have resisted the temptation,” she said.

Under their partnership, the Health Ministry sends the Shin Bet the names, ID numbers and contact details of those diagnosed with COVID-19. The security agency can then go back through two weeks of data to determine what cellphones were within a two-meter (six-foot) radius of the sick person for more than 15 minutes. They are then alerted and ordered to self-quarantine.

At the time, there was little outcry against the inclusion of the Shin Bet from ordinary Israelis, who have great faith in their security services.

But as the months went by, Israelis found themselves caught in what appeared to be a dragnet that scooped up tens of thousands of contacts. Many claimed the data was inaccurate, forcing them into a needless 14-day home quarantine. Making things worse, it was difficult to appeal to overwhelmed Health Ministry hotline operators.

The tool’s accuracy indoors is said to be problematic. If an infected person is in one apartment, it might send the entire building into quarantine.

The Health Ministry says that since July, 950,000 people detected by the tool have been sent into quarantine, among which 46,000 were found to be infected. The ministry said some 900,000 have been sent into quarantine through traditional contact tracing and 63,000 of those were found to be infected since July. Beginning in August, the Israeli military took over contact tracing responsibilities for the Health Ministry.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank, disputes the Health Ministry’s figures. Based on her own analysis of official data, she believes the Shin Bet has snagged far fewer of the infected than contact tracers. She also estimates at least 100,000 people were wrongly quarantined.

An interim report from October by the state comptroller, a government oversight body, backed up the claims that the tool hasn’t been entirely effective, saying contact tracing was significantly more so. The report also found that the Shin Bet did not always adhere to the limits imposed by the law, for example failing to delete information gathered in a number of cases.

A ministerial committee decided last month that Israel would begin scaling back the tool and limiting its use. But the decision is not final and more recently Israel has indicated it will seek to continue its widespread use, despite a Supreme Court challenge against the technology.

With the tool having been used on its citizens in a health crisis, critics say the door is open for it to be used again in other matters unrelated to state security.

“What happened with the Shin Bet needs to be a wake-up call,” said Shwartz Altshuler. “State authorities know everything about you, all the time, about where you are located. And we will need to think about the long-term consequences of that in the future. It won’t go away. They will use it again.”