Knesset to approve Shin Bet surveillance of coronavirus-infected citizens

Ashkenazi: Bennett’s plan to allow NSO group to store surveillance data is intolerable.

Defence Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at the annual memorial ceremony for soldiers whose burial place is unknown (photo credit: MINISTRY OF DEFENSE SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
Defence Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at the annual memorial ceremony for soldiers whose burial place is unknown
The Knesset Intelligence Subcommittee at press time on Tuesday was moving toward approving the surveillance by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) of coronavirus-infected citizens.
On Monday, the committee had already approved around 95% of the surveillance program, with various changes and new limits.
Tuesday's hearing was mostly devoted to defining to whom the Shin Bet could send information for enforcement purposes besides Israel Police.
The Health Ministry wanted the authority to transfer some information to local municipal officials for enforcement purposes, and the committee needed to iron out the parameters of that issue.
Even as they approved most of the surveillance program, committee chairman Gabi Ashkenazi (Blue and White) and MK Eli Avidar (Yisrael Beytenu) pushed hard on Monday and Tuesday to establish limits and continuous oversight on the agency’s use of technological surveillance.
In multiple instances where the government might have wanted broader and vague language regarding the surveillance program, the committee members insisted on an explicit list of what the agency could and could not do with its new surveillance powers.
Committee legal adviser Miri Frankel Shor emphasized that granting the Shin Bet these surveillance powers over Israeli citizens went against every definition of the agency’s mission until now, which has been to fight national security threats from non-citizens, such as Palestinian terrorists.
However, Frankel Shor recommended approval of the program, subject to limitations and continuous oversight, in light of the overarching goal of saving lives and the unique, dire nature of the situation.
A CONTROVERSIAL point was when Ashkenazi lashed out at Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and media reports that Bennett wanted to give NSO Group a role in the surveillance or storing of surveillance information on citizens.
Ashkenazi called this “intolerable” and demanded to know from government officials whether the reports regarding NSO were true and if something was in the works.
The answers from government officials were mixed.
A lawyer for the Shin Bet said that they had heard very general preliminary information about this idea, but that it was a Defense Ministry initiative that had nothing to do with the agency.
Deputy Attorney-General Dina Zilber said that there were ongoing discussions about some kind of initiative relating to civilian companies taking part in the surveillance or storage of its information, but that the issue was not yet mature enough to have reached Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit.
Essentially, government legal officials were admitting that Bennett wanted the idea considered and that they were considering it, but that the Knesset’s approval Monday night would not include any such program, since they themselves had not yet signed off on it, and might not.
During the exchange, Avidar raised his voice against the idea, implying that everyone in the room was allowing the opening of a Pandora’s box and that there would be powerful officials who would later try to use the information collected by the Shin Bet in ways the Knesset had not intended.
WHILE THE hearing was mostly respectful, at one point Ashkenazi pushed for the Health Ministry to agree to limit the Shin Bet from collecting information of third persons who came into contact with an infected person for less than 15 minutes.
Over committee member and Telem MK Moshe Yaalon’s objection that the committee should not micromanage the Shin Bet, Ashkenazi said that unless an infected person came into direct physical contact with a third party, there should be a tight leash on what kinds of people the agency could technologically surveil.
Referring to what information the Shin Bet can collect from infected citizens’ cellphones, the committee limited this to information providing personal identification, location and details of who an individual contacted, and excluded the content of communications with others.
Furthermore, the committee said that the Shin Bet should transfer only those limited aspects of that collected information to the Health Ministry which were imperatively necessary for saving lives.
The committee also pressed the government to agree that the surveillance program be shut down if either the country went into lockdown or if the coronavirus began to spread so widely that Shin Bet surveillance lost its utility.
Regarding the legal basis for extending the surveillance program, the committee chose to allow it to continue based on government approval of an extension of aspects of the existing Shin Bet Law.
Though there might have been positives to the Knesset passing its own new law on the issue or amending the Shin Bet Law or another law, overall, the committee found that a government decision would leave a smaller long-term footprint in terms of legal changes.
Leaving a smaller legal footprint was important to the committee to make it clear that its approval of Shin Bet surveillance against ordinary Israeli citizens was limited to this incredibly unique situation and would not set any precedent for the future.
The hearing was a far cry from earlier hearings on the issue dating back to March 19, when the committee felt that the government was trying to bulldoze it into approving a massive, amorphous and potentially dangerous expansion of Shin Bet powers to invade citizens’ privacy rights.
The committee heard from representatives of the Shin Bet, Attorney-General’s Office, Health Ministry, Police and human rights organizations.