Israeli authorities have permitted the country’s intelligence agency to track the mobile phones of people who test positive for the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19). The emergency legislation allows the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) to monitor phone data in order to locate close contacts of those positive for the the B11529 omicron strain.

The Israeli cabinet voted on Nov. 28 to allow Shin Bet to track the phones of Israelis who catch the omicron variant. The permission is valid until the end of Dec. 2 and does not extend to those infected with other strains such as the B16172 delta variant.

According to a report by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, those suspected of being in contact with an omicron-infected patient will be “instructed to immediately go to the nearest [COVID-19] testing station to determine whether they were actually infected.”

Prior to this, Shin Bet only instructed possible close contacts of COVID-19 patients to quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Shin Bet Director Ronen Bar said the agency’s phone tracking is effective when the number of COVID patients is low. Once infection rates spike and Israel sees an influx of omicron-infected patients, Shin Bet will request to halt its tracking – rendering the policy no longer effective.

A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the Knesset – the country’s parliament – would vote on new legislation extending Shin Bet’s authority to surveil omicron patients by an additional two weeks. Succeeding laws will allow the permission to be renewed on a two-week basis, she added.

Supporters of the Israeli government defended the decision as necessary in order to curb the spread of the purportedly more infectious omicron strain. They added that Shin Bet’s surveillance allowed potential virus carriers to be quickly identified, tested and quarantined.

Criminology professor Limor Yehuda was among those supportive of the surveillance. She wrote in a Nov. 29 op-ed for Israeli paper Maariv: “We have indeed reached a point at which we do need a ‘Big Brother’ keeping track of where we go.” 

Israel keeping tabs on unvaccinated citizens’ personal data

Civil rights lawyer Gil Gan-Mor and many others voiced out their opposition to Shin Bet’s mobile phone surveillance. In a separate Nov. 29 Maariv op-ed, he denounced the move as “a terrible, illegal decision.” Gan-Mor added: “No other democratic country has chosen to use its security service to track people.”

Other critics said that the decision to grant Shin Bet permission to track mobile phones infringed civil liberties. They pointed to a March 2021 ruling by the Supreme Court of Israel, which ruled that the intelligence agency can only utilize phone data to track people who have refused to comply with mandatory contact tracing procedures.

They also pointed to government data that showed human contact tracers worked better than Shin Bet’s monitoring. During an earlier wave of the pandemic, government data showed manual tracking managed to locate the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 patients, rather than through automated means.

This was not the first time Israel handled people’s personal data during the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in February 2021, the Knesset passed a law permitting personal information of Israelis refusing the COVID-19 vaccine to be forwarded to the government in a 30-13 vote. Names, addresses and phone numbers of unvaccinated Israelis can be sent to Israeli authorities for a period of three months or until the pandemic is declared over.

Under the new law, local governments and two ministries have the right to receive the information. But the Knesset clarified that these cannot be used for any purpose other than urging people to get vaccinated. The parliament added in a statement: “The information will be deleted after its use within 60 days, and a person who was contacted can demand that their details be deleted and that they not be contacted again.” 

The Israeli legislative body said the measure aims to “enable [government] bodies to encourage people to [get vaccinated] by personally addressing them.”

However, it was not without criticism. Lawmaker Merav Michaeli, who heads the Israeli Labor Party, accused former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “denying citizens their right to the privacy of their medical information.” Netanyahu served as the prime minister at the time of the law’s passing, before Bennett replaced him in June 2021.

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