Knesset pushes off Shin Bet corona surveillance matter

In the balance is whether the Shin Bet will continue its surveillance of the country’s infected citizens.

Surveillance, illustrative (photo credit: WALLPAPER FLARE)
Surveillance, illustrative
(photo credit: WALLPAPER FLARE)
The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (FADC) on Monday pushed off the issue of Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) coronavirus surveillance until December 3, likely waiting for to get closer to an update on the issue with the High Court of Justice.
According to the corona law relating to the Shin Bet surveillance of infected citizens, the Knesset is supposed to extend or cancel the surveillance authorities every 21 days while the emergency situation is in place.
The FADC on Monday essentially tabled the issue until December 3, likely knowing that the government is due to inform the High Court close to that time about its plans for the surveillance going forward.
The government had requested a 21-day extension.
In the balance is whether the Shin Bet will continue its surveillance of the country’s infected citizens for a somewhat indefinite period, or whether the practice will be stopped or some kind of new limits may be instituted.
On November 17, the High Court put some heat on the government about continuing the agency’s surveillance, with an interim order demanding to know why the program should not be significantly limited.
More specifically, the justices said the government must explain within 21 days why the surveillance should not be restricted to cases where an infected person refuses to cooperate with the state’s epidemiological investigations.
In addition, the court ordered the state to explain why it has failed to make Magen 2 a serious alternative or replacement for Shin Bet surveillance.
On October 22, the High Court had appeared to strongly support Shin Bet surveillance of coronavirus-infected citizens.
High Court President Esther Hayut, Vice President Hanan Melcer and Justice Neal Hendel bore down on Association for Civil Rights in Israel lawyer Gil Gan Mor with hard questions about how they could justify ending Shin Bet surveillance, which the Knesset has authorized.
From the start, Gan Mor argued that other countries are using tools that are less invasive to citizens’ privacy and that Israel’s Magen application, which can be downloaded voluntarily, along with an increase in coronavirus epidemiological investigators, can replace the Shin Bet.
Melcer pushed back hard on these assumptions, saying “if there is no other replacement method, then there is nothing else to do. You start from the premise that other democratic countries have other tools, like the tool of the Shin Bet, but they are not using them,” but when you say Magen can replace the Shin Bet, “both here and in other countries, almost no one downloads it.”
He added that if people will not use it, there is no real alternative.
Meanwhile, leading into the FADC meeting, Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler and lawyer Rachel Aridor Hershkovitz of the Israel Democracy Institute presented a report calling for the government to change course from its current contact tracing approach (‘top down’) to encouraging and supervising a local regulatory approach (‘bottom up’).
A comparative international review among various countries showed that the download rate and use of personal surveillance applications is particularly low, averaging about 20%, mainly due to a lack of public trust in these systems.
The IDI experts describe the implementation of the Magen application as a colossal failure with 98% of Israelis who downloaded the second version subsequently removing it from their mobile devices.
In addition, IDI’s experts recommend that the government “immediately halt the use of the ISA’s [Shin Bet] contact tracing and to transfer oversight of civilian applications out of the hands of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and instead place it under the jurisdiction of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee.”
From mid-March until June 9, the Shin Bet was given emergency powers to track coronavirus infected citizens with limited oversight.
Eventually infection rates dropped, and from June 9 until June 22, there was no Shin Bet surveillance and no real talk about it.
But as infection rates spiked from under 2,000 persons to tens of thousands, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought the program back despite Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman’s objections.