Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the formation of a ministerial team, headed by Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, to examine the effectiveness of the Israel Police and Shin Bet's monitoring of civilians during the coronavirus crisis, which many have criticized as an invasion of privacy.
The decision followed a report released on Friday by Yediot Ahronot which stated that Shin Bet enjoys access to a massive data bank holding information collected on all electronic communications undertaken in Israel. Steintiz wrote the protocol on how to use the data bank but admitted that the process was a “little strange” as most MKs were not involved and the final approval was given in a meeting involving himself and five other MKs.
The data bank, known in the security community as ‘The Instrument,’ gathers passive records on phone calls and web usage in the country. Communications companies must, by law, share their records of duration of calls, their locations, and web-usage with the relevant services. Shin Bet are not given information on what people spoke about, but are handed data on where they were, whom they called, and for how long. Likewise, it knows which sites one visits and for how long, but not the content one picks.
Due to the coronavirus epidemic, Shin Bet agreed to use ‘The Instrument’ to monitor the location of Israelis who are infected with the virus to prevent other people from being infected. According to the report, it's use for this purpose is a rare case and other requests, including past suggestions to use it to discover who in the IDF high-command is speaking with reporters, were rejected by Shin Bet who wants to keep it for one thing only: the prevention of terrorist acts and capturing terrorists.
The report claims that the process needed to access the data is very strict and chances of it being used, for example, by a Shin Bet officer who wants to see where his wife is at, are almost nil.
However, it did report that the MKs who are meant to be in charge of oversight of ‘The Instrument’ are not fully aware of what it does exactly and that nobody knows for how long the records are kept.
An official speaking with the paper said: “To be honest, commercial companies such as Google and Facebook save your data forever, why would you object to the state keeping it to save lives?”