The Israeli public is underestimating the gravity of the surveillance system enforced by the Israeli government as part of the measures undertaken to confront the coronavirus emergency, Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and the head of the institute’s Media Reform Program and Democracy in the Information Age Program, explained in an online briefing organized by the Jerusalem Press Club.Shwartz Altshuler expressed concern over the government’s decision to allow the Shin Bet (Israel Security Service) to track citizens’ phones without their authorization. The Shin Bet is utilizing a system normally used for anti-terrorism activities. It can track the movements of those infected with the virus and at the same time detect and warn those who had come in contact with them. “Israelis have a high level of trust in national security organizations. Moreover, we put so much [of the] taxpayers’ money in these organizations and we create such unbelievable technologies that people ask themselves why shouldn’t they be used in a time of crisis,” Shwartz Altshuler said on Thursday, answering a question from The Jerusalem Post.“The Israeli public is not aware of its right to privacy as citizens in other countries are,” she added. “Maybe it is not in our culture, and we consider ourselves very open.”However, according to the expert, the result is alarming.“I believe there is not enough understanding of the level of control and power that someone who can create this massive surveillance and the AI-based analysis of all this big data can have in their hands, and this bothers me,” she emphasized.Shwartz Altshuler opened the briefing by stating she does believe that in the time of a pandemic, it makes sense to use any technological means available to fight it and that the right of privacy might be infringed upon.“It is a matter of proportionality and supervision – also because we can assume that the technologies used are going to stay with us for quite a long time even after the emergency is over, if we look for example at what happened after September 11,” she said, pointing out that among democratic nations, Israel is the one that has positioned itself to the more extreme side of the spectrum regarding the harshness of its surveillance measures.She pointed out that while, for example in South Korea, the authorities did not use the army or police to track citizens; ensured a certain level of transparency by notifying people when their phones were tracked; and designed a clear procedure to appeal the order to enter quarantine, this has not happened in Israel.The fact that the secret services are carrying out the surveillance, she added, also makes it very hard to hold them accountable for what happens to the collected data – and whether it will be erased or not when the crisis subsides.While the government sponsored the creation of the app Hamagen, which ensures that the data collected stays inside the person’s personal device while also allowing its owner to be notified if they are exposed to someone infected, Shwartz Altshuler emphasized that it did not receive any public endorsement by prominent government figures and that less than a million Israelis have downloaded it so far.“I think that the reason for it is that the government prefers to use the Shin Bet system,” she stated.Shwartz Altshuler also cautioned against the government doing further analysis of the collected data. For example, it is considering combining the locations visited by a person and his or her personal profile (age, health background and so on) to create a ranking system. It would then determine which people would be allowed to go out of their homes. This would amount to a further infringement on individual rights, she warned. Furthermore, there is also a lack of transparency and supervision, as well as the opportunity for citizens to appeal the decision.She concluded that in situations where citizens want to avoid being tracked, they should leave their phones at home and talk through alternative systems, such as WhatsApp, rather than through a regular phone line.