Knesset committee extends Shin Bet surveillance to May 26 in split vote

You want to change from a democracy to a Shin Bet state’

SECURITY SURVEILLANCE monitors. Privacy advocates argue that even if the official transfer of data does not identify individuals, anyone who wants to abuse the information to invade an individual’s privacy can do so with ease (photo credit: KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS)
SECURITY SURVEILLANCE monitors. Privacy advocates argue that even if the official transfer of data does not identify individuals, anyone who wants to abuse the information to invade an individual’s privacy can do so with ease
Despite some heavy resistance, the Knesset Intelligence Subcommittee on Tuesday voted 6-3 to extend the Shin Bet’s (Israel Security Agency) use of mobile phone data surveillance of coronavirus infected citizens until May 26.
"You want to change us from a democratic state to a state of the Shin Bet," said Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar to National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat at the hearing, in pushing back hard against the program.
Even the extension until May 26 was less than the extension until June 16 which the government had requested.
In parallel, within a few weeks the cabinet has said it will present a draft bill to regulate the Shin Bet surveillance in a more permanent way in order to comply with an order by the High Court of Justice on April 26.  
Ultimately, all current or future government coalition MKs voted to extend the program, while all opposition MKs voted against.
Those voting for the extension included committee chairman Gabi Ashkenazi (Blue and White), Likud MKs Gidon Sa’ar and Yoav Kisch, Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked, Labor Party leader Amir Peretz and Shas MK Yoav Ben Tzur.
Those voting against included: Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid, Telem Party leader Moshe Ya’alon and Yisrael Beytenu MK Avidar.
Pressed how the leader of the Labor Party, which has a tradition of fighting for civil and privacy rights, could vote for the extension while Yisrael Beytenu, a party which has less of such a tradition, a spokesman for Peretz promised an explanation, but never gave one despite repeated inquiries.
At the hearing, Lapid pressed Ben Shabbat, saying: "You told us that the situation is good, but that you want to use a tool to prevent a situation where things get worse. We have more deaths in Israel from traffic than from corona. Should the Shin Bet start being used to prevent traffic accidents?"
Ben Shabbat’s case to the committee was that, “awareness for social distancing and following isolation rules is going down and infections could potentially be going up, as there is more of a market and more opening up.”
“There is greater danger now, because the danger increases when we all meet each other,” at work and in other newly opened locations more frequently.
Ben Shabbat said that the committee should disregard the current statistics in which the number of infected persons continues to drop rapidly every day, because the immediate future will likely reverse this trend due to the country loosening corona restrictions across the board.
“Especially at this moment, when the probability of contagion will grow, we need this tool [the Shin Bet surveillance] to catch any new outbreaks – and to allow the public to continue to live life” in a more regular way without having to snap back to a country in lockdown.
The national security adviser also said that the government has continued to review alternate options for tracking infections, but that all the alternatives are still far inferior.
He also implied that part of the issue was that significant portions of various minority groups in the country have cellphones that are not accessible or cannot download necessary programs to make the alternate options effective.
Much of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in Israel has specialized cell phones to disconnect them from much of the Internet so as to avoid secular influences.
Pushed on the issue by committee members who said that the government was underselling the alternatives and that he needed to present a more concrete comparative analysis, Ben Shabbat said he would provide such an analysis in approximately one week.
When the national security adviser said that “we see other countries struggling with this” dilemma of how to track corona infections, Ya’alon, who is also a former defense minister, slammed him, saying: “Even advanced countries with agencies like the Shin Bet have not done this… Can’t we say: ‘this has done its job’ and move on from it?”
Avidar added that what makes a country a democracy is that “the government does not take draconian measures even during difficult times.”
Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri was asked why the government has not already presented a bill given that the High Court ordered it to, back on April 26.
He responded that the bill involves highly complex issues with major constitutional implications and that it would normally take months to move on such a bill, but that they were committed to presenting it within weeks.
The hearing also involved a debate about whether the Shin Bet program has been worthwhile.
While top Health Ministry official Sigal Sedensky emphasized that around a third of the 16,265 persons infected were tracked down by the program, Lapid countered that 93% of the people who the Shin Bet told to go into isolation were found to be healthy and that only 7% were determined to be infected.
On April 26, the High Court said that the invasion of privacy from the program was too great to allow it to continue much longer simply based on a government decision and the state's emergency regulations, absent a full Knesset law to regulate it.
On March 31, the subcommittee had approved extending the program until April 30 with an eye toward allowing it to continue even without a new Knesset law, with some changes and limitations.
The surveillance started in mid-March when the coronavirus crisis hit a peak, and ran for around two weeks before the Knesset asserted any serious oversight.