End Shin Bet surveillance of corona-infected citizens – comptroller

Comes out against PM stance, but carefully • agency violated privacy in four cases

Israel Police prepare for new coronavirus lockdown regulations, Sept. 25, 2020 (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
Israel Police prepare for new coronavirus lockdown regulations, Sept. 25, 2020
(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
The government should end Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) surveillance of coronavirus-infected citizens, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman recommended Monday. His position could put him at loggerheads with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At the same time, Englman carefully avoided challenging Netanyahu directly, instead phrasing his conclusions in terms of “considering the issue” as opposed to an unequivocal insistence on immediately ending the program.
Further, Englman avoided going after Netanyahu personally, instead suggesting that the decision was in the hands of Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.
The State Comptroller’s Report, which focused on the July-August period, discussed the National Security Council having a role in these issues.
Avoiding naming Netanyahu on the issue will strain credulity for many since the prime minister was the one who famously slammed his hand on the table, insisting on a return to Shin Bet surveillance in June after a three-week break and despite opposition from Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman.
Since taking office in July 2019, Englman has been said to be too close to Netanyahu, though he has denied the charge.
More specifically, the report said: “It is recommended that all those involved in the matter, and in particular including the committee of ministers presided over by the intelligence minister and the health minister, should take into account the limited effectiveness of the activities of the Shin Bet in its support of the Health Ministry.”
To the extent that the government insists on continuing Shin Bet surveillance, the report said the agency and the ministries involved must be more candid with each other about the Shin Bet’s limits and about improving how the surveillance is used.
The report noted that for the time period it analyzed, 3% to 7% of those sent to quarantine due to Shin Bet surveillance methods contracted the coronavirus, compared with 24% of those sent to quarantine by epidemiological investigations.
Put simply, the Shin Bet sent between three to eight times as many people into quarantine unnecessarily when compared to epidemiological investigations.
Further, while the comptroller said the Shin Bet’s record is impressive in the sense that it located 30% of coronavirus-infected citizens beyond what epidemiological studies could locate, it still fell far short of being able to fully track infection trends.
On a related note, the comptroller said the agency believes its improvement on epidemiological tracking of nonfamily members reaches 40% to 60% of those infected.
Moreover, Englman said the Shin Bet’s primary anti-terrorism mission had been negatively impacted by the distraction of having to reassign personnel and resources from counterterrorism to coronavirus tracking.
Likewise, there are risks that the publication and running discussion about the Shin Bet’s tracking tool could reduce its future effectiveness in fighting terrorism if terrorists learn about how it works and its weaknesses, he said.
The report also flagged the violation of citizens’ privacy, which has been part of the surveillance.
For the first time, the report said there have been four concrete cases in which an individual’s private information was accessed improperly, despite safeguards put in place to prevent this.
Rather than investing so much in Shin Bet surveillance, the report recommended investing more energies and resources in epidemiological surveys, which it said are superior in some ways to the agency’s review.
Englman said the Health Ministry should revise the language it uses to inform citizens that they need to go into quarantine and provide more specific information about the who and the how in terms of their contact with a coronavirus-infected person.
In general, the comptroller encouraged more investment in the Magen voluntary cellphone tracking application.
As of August 6, some 900,000 people had downloaded the application, he wrote.
However, sometimes a major increase in July-August of users could be immediately followed by a major decrease, with new users finding the application not user-friendly enough or disappointed in some other technical issue, the report said.
In response, the Shin Bet aid it had only taken on the coronavirus surveillance mission upon being drafted to do so by the government and that the comptroller’s data was outdated.
Referring to a Health Ministry report from Sunday, the agency said 35.8% of infected persons, or 59,326 people, were located solely because of the surveillance program.
Further, the Shin Bet said the ministry’s report found that an additional 40,546 infections, 860 serious illnesses and 304 deaths likely were prevented by the surveillance.
The security service disputed the comptroller’s conclusion about epidemiological investigations, saying its electronic tool was superior and located potentially infected people at such speed that sometimes a parallel epidemiological probe might not have even been started.
Responding to the four cases in which personal data was mishandled, the agency said there had been hundreds of thousands of checks, and even those four cases did not lead to any concrete harm, indicating the Shin Bet’s commitment to staying within the law.
Moreover, the agency said all four cases occurred months ago and at much earlier stages regarding technological kinks, which have since been fixed.
In addition, it said improvements in the surveillance process were leading to reduced unnecessary quarantines.
Cohen responded to the report, complimenting the Shin Bet for helping the country combat the coronavirus, even though such a duty “is not at the heart of its standard work.”
Cohen highlighted the positive 30% of infected persons and some 300 lives saved by the agency.
Avoiding additional infections and deaths had also saved the economy from further harm, he said.
Furthermore, Cohen noted that all of the ministers on the intelligence subcommittee had supported the Shin Bet’s role in combating coronavirus infections.
The security service had worked hard to safeguard privacy rights and was constantly working on improving these safeguards and the accuracy of the surveillance in general, he said.
The Health Ministry had not responded by press time, and the State Comptroller’s Office had not responded to inquiries relating to avoiding laying blame on Netanyahu.
Several pro-privacy experts and organizations, including the Israel Democracy Institute’s Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Movement for Digital Rights, cited the State Comptroller’s Report and called on the government to immediately discontinue the Shin Bet program.