With No Checks on Power, Israel Also Wants Shin Bet to Map Coronavirus Hot Spots

The more you have, the more you want. After the Shin Bet was authorized to use anti-terrorism technology to trace people who were near coronavirus patients, the state wants to assign additional pandemic-fighting measures to the security service, without specifying them. It’s as if the virus were a dangerous terrorist who’s listening in on the deliberations; as if the target being monitored were a cruel enemy that must be defeated rather than the Israeli public, which has the right to know all the details.

– Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troops

Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsHaaretz

The state told the High Court of Justice Tuesday that an extraordinary ministerial committee is considering assigning additional tasks to the Shin Bet to help contain the pandemic. The statement came in response to a petition filed by attorney Shachar Ben Meir, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights and the Union of Journalists in Israel.

The committee was set up to monitor the efficacy of the tracking mechanism in the wake of public criticism. But the response to the court makes it clear that rather than curbing the use of covert means to track the movements of law-abiding citizens, the committee “is considering adding assignments to the Shin Bet as part of its aid to the Health Ministry in containing the spread of the coronavirus.”

The cabinet, the Shin Bet and the attorney general are refusing to provide details on the proposed additional tasks. The statement to the court said only that the goal was “to make it possible to continue to act to slow the spread of the virus while partially lifting the restrictions on freedom of movement.” If the justices are curious, the state’s legal advisers propose the oldest trick in the book: an ex parte hearing that would let them whisper the details into the justices’ ears without having to disclose them to the public.

Haaretz has learned that this deep, dark secret amounts to the addition of another layer of analysis to the information that’s already being collected about us, with the aim of mapping areas where restrictions could, or could not, be lifted. That accompanies the army’s proposal to divide the country into color-coded zones based on the incidence of COVID-19 in each.

Based on previously published details about the Shin Bet’s use of special means, we can imagine an enormous database with information about every person in Israel and in the territories that’s meaningless unless it's asked a specific question. For example: Who was near a COVID-19 patient at a specific time or, with the new proposal, what’s the expected infection rate in a particular area and should the lockdown be lifted there or not?

Forget the mistaken notion that only cellular geolocation is the only issue. That’s what the police do to monitor people who are supposed to be in isolation. The Shin Bet’s tools are much more sophisticated. Within the organization it’s called “The Tool,” as journalist Ronen Bergman has disclosed in Yedioth Ahronoth, but it’s more easily understood as a smart search engine that operates on a vast trove of cellphone data from all of us.