Israel’s Security Service Against Tracking Citizens to Fight Coronavirus, but Government at a Loss

The cabinet convened Wednesday for an urgent discussion on resuming the Shin Bet security service’s comprehensive digital tracking of coronavirus victims and those with whom they’d come into contact. With the support of Kahol Lavan, it was decided to bring legislation to this effect to the Knesset for a preliminary vote, presumably next week.

After a month of empty talk, in which no relevant steps were taken to halt the renewed spread of the virus – like improving the testing process and upgrading the epidemiological research to cut off chains of infection – the government is choosing to focus on those aspects that are comfortable for it, like blaming the public, increasing fines and renewing the invasive monitoring. The ground was being paved for this throughout the last week, through the criticism of the Shin Bet and the Supreme Court justices, whose purism is supposedly preventing an effective battle against the disease.

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It seems that Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman has been in an uncomfortable position since the start of the crisis in March. He was never enthusiastic abut this mission, but in the absence of any other immediate alternative, he grabbed an oar and started rowing. Two weeks ago he took advantage of the temporary drop in morbidity to stop the project. Now he will apparently be enlisted again to perform this tracking against his will.

Police enforce the wearing of masks in line with coronavirus restrictions, Jerusalem, June 21, 2020Ohad Zwigenberg

Based on conversations with those who’ve attended the recent meetings and the recordings broadcast by Channel 12’s Amit Segal of Argaman’s remarks at the coronavirus cabinet meeting (itself an unusual thing), one can try to analyze the Shin Bet’s position. The organization’s objections touch on two primary points. The first is the desire to keep the service away from controversial political questions, like how much to invade residents’ privacy while diverting resources from its primary mission, which is foiling terror and espionage. The second point is that the very use by the Shin Bet of its tracking technology will expose sensitive information about the capabilities it has for carrying out its primary mission during routine times.

As with the question of Military Intelligence’s analyzing the information, which raised a storm a few days ago, the coronavirus crisis has exposed the Health Ministry’s weakness in researching the chains of infection. During the earliest meetings it was already clear to the ministers that the ministry was drowning under the burden of its responsibilities and couldn’t locate all the new patients and those who’d come in contact with them. At the instruction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Shin Bet enlisted for this mission out of an understanding that there was an urgent national need, that there was no other application available to use and that this solution would be temporary, until the Health Ministry could come up with an alternative arrangement.

The arrangement was that the Shin Bet would examine the cell phone data of every patient after he was identified by the Health Ministry, but would focus only on his cell phone number and not on the person’s identity. The process was described to the ministers as “automatic, with no human involvement,” with the broader data revealed only to a small number of Shin Bet employees.