Senior Israeli security officials are divided over the controversial decision to task the Shin Bet security service and its digital surveillance measures to track people infected with the coronavirus and those who were in their proximity. Until now, the advanced technology was solely designed and used to combat terrorists and criminals.
Most senior officials, both current and former ones, concede that in light of the crisis, the use of such digital measures in a restrained and supervised manner is an “unavoidable necessity.” However, many expressed concern with the way the decision was made. “I am concerned that Israel, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has concentrated too much power and authority in his hands, will embark on a slippery slope,” said Ephraim Halevy, a former Mossad chief.
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“With the crisis accelerating the question is what was the alternative,” asks Ofer Dekel, a former deputy head of the Shin Bet. “Does the country have an alternative, a solution which will ensure a rapid adaptation of measures to reduce the spread of the virus? I think that the answer is that there is no other alternative. Only the Shin Bet’s digital measures can meet the two requirements for handling the crisis: speed and thorough epidemiological inquiry.”
According to Dekel the measures help the health authorities to quickly identify the exact location and time that each infected patient crossed paths with other people. “I am familiar with the technology and we used it frequently and successfully in the war against terrorists,” said Arik (Harris) Barbing, a former head of the Jerusalem and West Bank district of the security service. “It helped us to collect data, arrest them, provide early warnings of their plots and prevent attacks,” said Barbing, a cybertech expert and former head of the agency’s cyber division.
The Shin Bet system integrates equipment, hardware, software, information and analysis and turns it into big data. Primarily it is based on cellular companies. Each company has stored the personal details of its subscriber: name, identity card and credit card numbers which are linked to the phone number issued by the company. The Shin Bet law of 2002 allows the agency to have access without a court order to the cellular companies’ computers for the aim of combating terrorism. In contrast, the police can have limited access for seven days and only with a court order.
The technology enables the tracking of the location and movement of people, in a radius of up to dozens of meters via signals sent from and to cellular phones and their interconnected antennas. It uses GPS, street cameras, as well as special thermal devices. It bugs phone and computer conversations, extracts voice samples and monitors chats and messages in social media (including Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube). All this information is stored as big data in the Shin Bet computers. The technology also enables the security service to retrieve the information retroactively up to 14 days.
Until the Shin Bet entered the picture, “the Ministry of Health based its inquiries on the memory of a patient once he entered the hospital,” noted Barbing. “But the human memory is tricky and elusive. People don’t remember whom they saw in a supermarket or railway station.”