Ministerial intel panel reduces Shin Bet coronavirus surveillance

The expected decision, though it had not been issued at press time, comes after pressure on three fronts.

Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen. (photo credit: PR)
Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen.
(photo credit: PR)
The Ministerial Intelligence Committee on Wednesday night and decided to reduce Shin Bet coronavirus surveillance of infected citizens but the new regulations will take effect only on January 20. The decision comes after pressure on three fronts.
Already in November, both the High Court of Justice and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee started to push the government to reduce its reliance on Shin Bet tracking.
Along with those pressures, the IDF as well as Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen announced on Tuesday that the country’s human epidemiological probes had improved tremendously and were already handling about 90% of those infected.
With Shin Bet tracking down from locating 40-60% of those infected this past spring to just 10%, health and intelligence officials agreed that the agency’s involvement could be reduced only to cases where an infected person was not cooperating, or other exceptional hard cases.
The Attorney-General’s Office also notified the High Court of this new position late Tuesday, asking to postpone a hearing scheduled for this week until next Monday.
Since spring, most of the government has followed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preference for using the Shin Bet to track infections despite criticism from human rights groups and some opposition MKs that this was an undue invasion of privacy.
In late November, then Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Zvi Hauser appeared enthusiastic about the possibility of replacing the Shin Bet’s coronavirus surveillance of infected citizens with a new cell phone application known as “the traffic light.”
According to Health Ministry official Udi Kaliner, when he explained the idea to Hauser, part of the change to the new app could take place as soon as mid-December. Other aspects would require legislation and might be four to six weeks off.
The traffic light app would parallel the ministry’s traffic light rating system for cities and would provide citizens who voluntarily download it information about the green, red or other status of the area they were in to help get them to start to internalize the consequences of travel to certain areas where corona is more prevalent.
At the second stage, it would require a Knesset law because it would become obligatory on some level.
Different proposals of what that obligation would be ranged from announcing it as a general obligation without any named enforcement, to blocking persons who do not download it from entering stores and other indoor areas.
Anyone who downloads the app to enter a particular place of business would be streaming information to the Health Ministry regarding their location and how long they were in the store.
Kaliner said that the app would not be able to tell how close an individual was to other individuals within the store space (which the Shin Bet’s tracking tool can do), but it would register that they were within the space.
It was unclear how this difference between the traffic light app and the Shin Bet app might impact any increase in unnecessary quarantines by sending persons into quarantine who were in a store, but who might not have been standing near each other.
It was unclear, also, if this new app would still be pursued given the increased success of human-led epidemiological probes.
At the late November Knesset hearing, alternatives were also presented by civil society groups.
For example, Karin On, representing the Israeli Privacy NGO and the Association for the Israeli Internet NGO, advocated using a Google app for tracking which has recently jumped in popularity.
She listed a number of European and other countries who are using it with greater success than previous corona tracking apps.
On said that a study of 35 countries, including focusing in on countries with similar demographics, geography and other connections with Israel, supported ending the Shin Bet tracking in favor of the Google app.
It appeared clear from the hearing that the Magen 2 (Shield) app, which had been heralded for months as a possible replacement for the Shin Bet, has been a failure.
Various officials also praised local bottom-up efforts at tracking, including local businesses instituting their own tracking for their customers, which some said might be less intimidating to citizens than the idea of an amorphous, clandestine national agency tracking them.