Intelligence Subcommittee chairman Gabi Ashkenazi (Blue and White) on Thursday started to wrestle with the government regarding oversight of the controversial surveillance by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) of citizens infected with the coronavirus.
Both Ashkenazi’s committee and a special Coronavirus Committee chaired by Blue and White MK Ofer Shelach were pressing top officials in an extraordinary public hearing – of a committee which usually does not even let the public know when it meets, let alone make the debate public.
National Security Council chief Meir Ben Shabbat, Shin Bet officials, Health Ministry officials Moshe Bar Siman Tov and Sigal Sedensky and Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri were pressed for more detailed answers than they have had to give until now.
Ashkenazi got the health officials to flesh out that the Shin Bet is not merely hacking infected persons' phones to use their location history regarding where they have been, but also accessing select data related to phone conversations.
The intelligence committee chair also asked why Israel needed to invade privacy in such an extreme way, while Germany seems to be having better results and has not used intelligence surveillance of its sick citizens.
Replying, the health officials indicated that it was too soon to know whether Germany would be better off long term, and that every country had different circumstances and needed to use whatever means it had available to combat the coronavirus plague.
Sedensky pushed hard to continue the Shin Bet surveillance, saying that they had found that relying on infected persons’ memories without using access to their cellphones ended up missing more than 60% of the people they had contact with.
Between a person’s faulty memory or people not realizing how many others they came into contact with in transition between locations, Sedensky said that Shin Bet access to cellphones was critical to halting a wave of new infections.
Some of the Knesset members countered that with a near national lockdown, maybe Shin Bet surveillance should be withdrawn since it was becoming less relevant.
GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS appeared to want to maintain the surveillance, if for nothing else than to better monitor and ensure that infected persons remained at home.
Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg pressed Ben Shabbat about why the controversial decision to let the Shin Bet spy on infected citizens was made in the middle of the night. She implied that the timing was designed to further delay oversight and confuse the public about what was going on.
Ben Shabbat, who rarely speaks publicly, said that not every act the government has taken has been perfect, but that the reason the decision was made at nighttime was because many complex issues were being debated simultaneously during the day, but were not resolved until much later.
He also said that no one had ever coped with such a crisis, and that the government was doing its best in a situation where it was learning in real time about how to best maneuver the country.
Ashkenazi slammed Nizri and the state for failing to inform the committee a day earlier than it did, which could have given the committee time to deal with the issue already last week.
Nizri maintained that up until the last second, it was unclear what exactly the parameters would be for Shin Bet surveillance, and that he brought the issue to Ashkenazi last week as soon as the parameters were finalized.
Despite Nizri’s answer to Ashkenazi, the deputy attorney-general had previously told The Jerusalem Post during a press conference that preliminary work on Shin Bet surveillance started several days before the issue was brought to Ashkenazi’s committee.
Nizri said they were not obligated to present a policy until it was final, but he also knew that the timing of when he presented the issue to the committee gave it insufficient time to provide proper oversight before the 22nd Knesset turned over to the 23rd Knesset – something which delayed oversight by a full week.
Ben Shabbat said the biggest problem was that the government still had not convinced enough Israelis to change their behavior and abide by social distancing requirements.
Shelach suggested to Ben Shabbat that many of their decisions were being made by irrational fears, and that clearer and calmer thinking would lead to better results. For example, he suggested that the current ban on outdoor exercise be lifted.
Yemina MK Ayelet Shaked said that Singapore was succeeding in fighting the coronavirus without shutting down its economy as much as Israel is, by placing further emphasis on a spectrum of tests for the coronavirus.
The idea was that there are a variety of tests for corona, some of which have generally solid if somewhat lower reliability, with the plus that they can be performed quickly and at home in order to free more people up to work by confirming they are not infected.