Gov’t privacy authority questions need for Shin Bet to track Omicron

There was a prior Knesset law authorizing Shin Bet tracking of the coronavirus, but it expired this past July.

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
(photo credit: KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS)

The government’s Authority for Privacy told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that it is questionable whether using the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) is justified for tracking citizens infected by the new COVID-19 Omicron variant.

The committee held hearings on Tuesday as a prerequisite to moving forward with legislation to authorize Shin Bet tracking. The legislation could happen as soon as Thursday, or else next week.

The Shin Bet started tracking Omicron-infected citizens on Sunday on the basis of a government decision, despite prior High Court of Justice rulings that this could only be reengaged on the basis of a new Knesset law.

There was a prior Knesset law authorizing Shin Bet tracking of COVID-19, but it expired in July.

A group of NGOs filed a petition with the High Court on Monday to declare the restoration of Shin Bet tracking as illegal. In the meantime, the Knesset debated the issue.

THE KNESSET building in Jerusalem holds one of the world’s smallest legislatures. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)THE KNESSET building in Jerusalem holds one of the world’s smallest legislatures. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Committee chairman and former Mossad deputy chief Ram Ben-Barak expressed unease with reengaging the Shin Bet to track citizens, which is beyond the agency’s standard mandate of combating terrorism, but appeared ready to hold the government line, in light of the emergency.

Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri said bringing the intelligence agency back into a domestic policy issue was “very problematic,” but that the situation was so serious that his office had been convinced that there was no alternative.

Health Ministry Public Health Services head Sharon Alroy-Preis told the committee that while epidemiological probes had identified 186 persons who came into contact with Omicron-infected people, the Shin Bet had found another 44 contacts that had been missed by human error.

New Hope MK Zvi Hauser said he was less worried about the current use of the Shin Bet than previously, because it was limited to only those infected with Omicron and for a shorter period.

He asked Alroy-Preis at what infection number she thought the state could stop using the Shin Bet, and she said it was too soon to say.

Alroy-Preis did say that if there were 500 Omicron-infected people, the ministry would consider itself as having “lost control” of the tracking.

Yesh Atid MK Meirav Ben Ari opposed using the Shin Bet, saying it was too extreme a measure for a democracy to take when it was unclear how bad Omicron was.

Also, multiple MKs from Meretz vehemently criticized the new Shin Bet COVID-19-tracking policy as illegal.