Israel uses counterterrorist technology to track coronavirus patients

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel called the move a "slippery slope."
Image: People wearing protective masks walk into Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital on March 16, 2020 in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, as the Jewish state introduces stringent measures to control the coronavirus pandemic.
People wearing protective masks walk into Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital on Monday as Israel introduces stringent measures to control the coronavirus pandemic.Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images

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By Linda Givetash and Paul Goldman

Israel's security forces have begun tracking coronavirus patients and people in self-isolation using intrusive cybermonitoring technology typically used to locate terrorists, officials confirmed Tuesday.

The government authorized Shin Bet, its internal security agency, to track patients using cellular data to make sure they stay isolated, the head of agency Nadav Argaman said in a statement Tuesday.

The agency would also use the data to track people who were in proximity to the coronavirus patients and notify them of the need to self-isolate themselves.

The confirmation follows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement on Monday of emergency regulations to speed up the deployment of cybermonitoring in the fight against the virus by circumventing the requirement for Cabinet approval of such measures.

Israel's opposition Blue and White party denounced the measure, saying despite the exceptional circumstance of the virus, the country "cannot surrender transparency and oversight."

The party's chairman Benny Gantz said in a statement on Twitter that he will insist that government committees be involved immediately in the oversight and regulation of the use of cybertracking measures on civilians.

Gantz has been embroiled in a power struggle with Netanyahu, blocking his Likud party from achieving a parliamentary majority in the country's third election in a year this month.

The move has also been criticized by human rights groups. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel called the measures “a dangerous precedent and a slippery slope.”

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Addressing concerns of data security and privacy, Argaman said that only "a very limited group of service personnel" would have access to the tracking data and that it would not be stored in the agency's database.

The agency's "technological assistance requested to provide the Ministry of Health is for one purpose only — saving human lives," Argaman said. "Assistance will be provided only as required to deal with the spread of the epidemic and under clear and defined restrictions and restraints, which have been agreed with the country's top legal entities."

Israel has so far recorded at least 324 cases of the coronavirus, with no recorded deaths. The health ministry said 11 patients have fully recovered and been discharged by hospitals, while five people remain in serious condition.

There were 50,337 people in self-isolation, according to a statement from the health ministry on Monday.

The Palestinian Authority reported that 41 cases have been confirmed in the occupied West Bank, and none confirmed in the Gaza Strip.

The country has enforced stringent measures to slow the spread of the virus by closing schools and other public gathering places including malls and restaurants.

The health ministry also issued new directives on Tuesday urging people not to leave their homes except if in need vital services. People would still be allowed to go out to shop for food only if delivery was not an option to them, and exercise outdoors is being limited to 10 minutes.

Reuters contributed.