Shin Bet cyber founder: Coronavirus surveillance needed to save lives

Maybe empower new body to replace agency in future, protect privacy

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 Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) surveillance of coronavirus infected citizens since mid-March was necessary to save lives, but protecting privacy is also important and may require handing the program to a new agency, Shin Bet cyber division founder Arik “Harris” Barbing said on Wednesday.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post in connection with a CyberTech video conference, Harris said that, “with corona, Israel went into an emergency because of the pandemic. We needed a solution for if a person gets to the hospital and is infected with corona.
“What is the fastest way to know who was near him and to update them in order to send them into quarantine and to establish their health status is?” he asked rhetorically.
“When people get to the hospital, they do not necessarily remember the last two weeks, and some don’t cooperate for their own reasons; people don’t want to give up their privacy.”
Next, he explained that this was where the Shin Bet’s special technology – which has been used for years to track and combat terrorists – could come into play to save lives from the coronavirus.
In terms of oversight, Harris noted that after an initial period when there was no operating Knesset, the Knesset Intelligence Subcommittee chaired by Gabi Ashkenazi “approved and the attorney-general had approved. We knew there was a pandemic, but we didn’t know the severity of the threat,” he said. “After we saw what happened in Italy and Spain, we needed drastic measures to get to people faster to avoid major chaos.”
Another plus is that the technology is able to locate who was close by the infected person so that only those people will need to go into quarantine and not everyone in the same store and parking lot around the same time, he said.
From there, the information is sent in a secure way to the Health Ministry, which handles contacting the necessary people.
He pointed out that the corona surveillance was not a Shin Bet initiative, but rather came from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Health Ministry, who “directed the Shin Bet to use its anti-terror tools to help save lives.”
Next, the Post mentioned to Harris that at Tuesday’s Knesset hearing on the issue, Telem MK Moshe Ya’alon was critical of the program because no other democracy, including those with technologies of the same level of the Shin Bet, had “stooped” to using their intelligence agencies to tracking their citizens.
Rather, Ya’alon and others emphasized that other hi-tech democracies requested data from telecommunications companies or gave their citizens a voluntary tracking application to download.
PRESSED ABOUT Ya’alon’s question, Harris said that even as the former defense minister had a point, the Shin Bet Law in Israel does give the agency special powers that do not necessarily exist in other countries. In this case, he said this helped Israel be more successful in combating the corona plague.
To show the program’s value, he cited that around a third of the 16,000 plus infected people got an early warning from the Shin Bet.
“On the other hand, there is a right to privacy. People do not want someone to check where they are all of the time, but still it is used only to get locations,” stated Harris.
In order to continue the program going forward, he noted that the Knesset would need to amend the law following the High Court of Justice ruling on April 26.
“Now, we aren’t in as much danger; now we are trying to exit. Who does the surveillance now?” he asked.
Harris said that the reason human rights activists preferred the idea of citizens voluntarily downloading an application for providing this tracking data to the Health Ministry is exactly what invalidates it – if even only a sizable minority do not comply, there could easily be a second corona wave.
Essentially, his argument was that the nature of corona makes the issue collective security more than individual rights.
At the same time, Harris did not think that the Shin Bet should necessarily continue to have responsibility for the surveillance if the program was required for an extended period.
Rather, he suggested that a new entity could be established to work on the issue within the Health Ministry and under its supervision.
In actuality he said that much of the technology is already widely available since Google, Facebook and Waze all have capabilities to determine a person’s location.
A new entity armed with the technology would ensure that “privacy was only invaded on the most minimum basis necessary to achieve the goals,” while ensuring no one tried to abuse personal data to get access to a person’s banking records, criminal record or other irrelevant data.
He said this was better than handing the issue to the Israel National Cyber Directorate, which deals with cyber defense, or a private company like NSO Group, which would not be on as strong a leash as a government agency.
Harris suggested that Israelis who were former Shin Bet personnel or have other security agency top-secret clearance backgrounds could be brought in as necessary to assist with the new entity.
Part of the new law and the agency’s job would also be to ensure that the data was deleted within a reasonable time and not archived.
Besides founding the Shin Bet’s cyber division, Harris was head of the counter-terrorism division for all of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria during a 27-year career with the agency.