Shin Bet surveillance schizophrenia - analysis

No democratic country in the world, including some doing better than Israel in combating corona, is using its intelligence services to track infected citizens.

Surveillance, illustrative (photo credit: WALLPAPER FLARE)
Surveillance, illustrative
(photo credit: WALLPAPER FLARE)
Israeli citizens might be forgiven if on a given week they are not sure whether the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) is tracking them or back to just tracking terrorists.
From mid-March until June 9, the Shin Bet was given emergency powers to track coronavirus infected citizens with limited oversight.
During that time, the High Court of Justice and the Knesset Intelligence Subcommittee both set deadlines for the program to become regulated by a long-term law which would more carefully calibrate the balance between security and human rights.
But the deadlines were flexible and repeatedly extended with no clear end in sight.
So even if pressure from the High Court and the Knesset helped bring the surveillance to an end, the real decisive factors were the drop in infections from 16,000 to under 2,000, as well as the sustained opposition of Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman.
Argaman had never wanted to track citizens in the first place, preferring to be laser-focused on tracking terrorists.
From June 9 until June 22 there was no Shin Bet surveillance and no real talk about it.
Knesset committees dealing with corona issues focused on other dilemmas like police searches, lockdowns and prisoner rights.
Legislation regarding potential Shin Bet surveillance was no longer pressing and took a back seat.
But as infection rates spiked from under 2,000 to double that number (and triple that number now), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already started campaigning to bring the program back last Sunday.
Argaman’s opposition slowed Netanyahu this time, but the jump in infection rates led the prime minister to continue to push forward regardless.
Last Thursday, Intelligence Subcommittee Chief Zvi Hauser was already talking about finding a way to temporarily approve Shin Bet surveillance again, while continuing the Knesset’s work on a long-term bill addressing the issue on a more delayed basis.
On Monday, Hauser unveiled a proposal to reauthorize Shin Bet surveillance for 21 days with the goal of passing the long-term legislation before that temporary period expired.
However, there have been two huge variables all along and until a real decision is reached about them, this zigzagging surveillance policy may continue to plague the government and leave the citizenry utterly confused about where their civil liberties stand.
These two key issues are: 1) Will Netanyahu consent to having an alternative like Magen2 and Bluetooth to track corona trends in place of the Shin Bet at any point or is the talk of just needing to improve the alternatives a stalling tactic for keeping the Shin Bet on the case? 2) If he is willing to use an alternative, what are the number of infections or deaths at which Netanyahu is willing to use an alternative and what is his threshold where he will only use the Shin Bet?
The camouflage issue that has been thrown out as decisive is whether those who oppose Shin Bet surveillance prefer lockdowns and economic meltdown or sacrificing a bit of their privacy to the Shin Bet?
No democratic country in the world, including some doing better than Israel in combating corona, is using its intelligence services to track infected citizens.
Magen 2, Bluetooth and any additional alternatives are not as effective as the Shin Bet’s tool, but at a hearing last week, Intelligence Ministry Acting Director-General Ronen Herling revealed a fascinating number.
He said that he wanted to get the alternative to the Shin Bet to a point where it could reach around 60% of the population.
This was the first time that a government official revealed a baseline.
But this baseline was also a bit of camouflage.
It was not clear what was significant about the number 60%. According to the Health Ministry, the Shin Bet has tracked between 30-50% of infected citizens depending on what kind of a statistical analysis you do.
Further, cellphone applications voluntarily downloaded in other countries are generally reaching between 10-40% of the population depending on how hard the countries campaign for their use.
Government officials have warned that Israeli citizens culturally will not voluntarily download the necessary application for being tracked.
But some top security officials formerly from the IDF, the Mossad and presumably the current Shin Bet director himself have wanted to see whether a public campaign could rally participation.
It could be that Netanyahu is so convinced that the alternatives will not get anywhere near the Shin Bet tool’s effectiveness (which itself is only at best 50% effective) that he does not want to waste valuable days or weeks trying.
If so, his real position is that he is willing to use the Shin Bet to track citizens, not for 21 days or the longer discussed period of an additional three months, but possibly for the 18 months it may take to get to a vaccine. Maybe this is the right position to save lives or the economy and maybe it isn’t, but no one is saying it out loud.
Netanyahu has also been accused of having other agendas which could clash with civil liberties.
Until Netanyahu presents his real “end game” or “redlines,” the temporary and permanent legislative initiatives seem more like temporary smokescreens to give the government space to avoid answering these hard questions.