Knesset reinstates Shin Bet surveillance of coronavirus infected citizens

Program authorized for 21 days, long-term bill still under debate

A man wears a face mask for fear of the coronavirus as he takes the train to Haifa, on March 17, 2020 (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
A man wears a face mask for fear of the coronavirus as he takes the train to Haifa, on March 17, 2020
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
The full Knesset late Wednesday approved a new law in its final reading, reinstating Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) surveillance of citizens infected with coronavirus. The program ended three weeks ago.
Rounds of procedural votes had successfully gone through multiple levels of processes at the Knesset, and the reinstatement was originally expected to pass Monday night, but was delayed.
The new authorization for the program was for 21 days, which is supposed to give the Knesset Intelligence Subcommittee time to finish debating and approving a long-term bill to regulate the issue.
For the next 21 days, Shin Bet surveillance can be activated either for a specific infected person who the Health Ministry is having difficulty tracking, or for broader use any time that the number of infections the day before rose to at least 200 people.
Committee chairman Zvi Hauser said, despite misgivings, he was moved to action by the 700 new infections announced on Tuesday.
The power to extend Shin Bet surveillance for 90 days was put off to be part of the debate about the long-term bill, Hauser said.
Restoring the program is a victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu despite opposition from Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman and most of the members of the opposition, including former IDF deputy chief of staff and current Meretz MK Yair Golan.
Netanyahu and his allies portrayed the dilemma as choosing between the lesser of two evils: sacrificing some privacy to Shin Bet surveillance or being compelled to lock down the country’s economy again.
The prime minister can also request that the Knesset widen use of Shin Bet surveillance in extraordinary circumstances.
The Knesset vote completes a rapid turnaround in what has proved to be a three-stage coronavirus-era drama dating back to mid-March.
From mid-March to June 9, the Shin Bet tracked citizens infected with coronavirus over the objections of Argaman and civil-society NGOs.
According to the Health Ministry, around one-third of the then-16,000 infected people were discovered by the Shin Bet’s cellphone-tracking technology and would not have been discovered by other available means.
Other supporters of the program, such as Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked, have said the program never should have stopped and that privacy pales in importance to saving lives and keeping the economy open by keeping infection rates under control.
Opponents to the program, such as Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, have slammed the program as destroying Israeli democracy.
At hearings over the issue on Monday, Avidar, Golan and former IDF Maj.-Gen. and current Yesh Atid MK Orna Barbivai said the government was using dishonest scare tactics and “defrauding the public” to press forward with the program.
They noted the rate of sick people and those on ventilators in Israel is still falling, despite rising infection rates, and the volume of deaths from coronavirus in Israel is still relatively small.
Further, they lambasted the government for undermining alternatives.
Avidar accused the Health Ministry of lying about its commitment to human epidemiological studies since an official told the committee around 400 nurses were tracking infections, when in fact only 23 are currently working on the issue.
In addition, Golan said the Israeli population was mature enough to use the Magen 2 voluntary cellphone-tracking application and Bluetooth to combat coronavirus without needing the Shin Bet.
When he was in charge of the Home Front Command, he said, the population could be rallied to partner with the government if there was proper top-down messaging.
Hauser has tried to strike a middle ground over the last several weeks, including allowing the Shin Bet program to expire on June 9 and keeping the current extension to three weeks.
However, Avidar accused Hauser of essentially caving in to Netanyahu when the cards were down and said any of Hauser’s limits on the program did not count for much.
At one point, Hauser said the purpose of the bill and the surveillance was “to protect citizens” from coronavirus and strike a balance with civil liberties, but Barbivai interjected, “No! It’s against citizens.”