‘Technology will not save Israel from the coronavirus’

In new report, Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler says Shin Bet surveillance nor HaMagen alone will be enough to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler  (photo credit: ISRAEL DEMOCRACY INSTITUTE)
Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler
Technology will not save Israel from the novel coronavirus, according to Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler.
“Technology is a tool,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “It cannot replace testing, tracing or social distancing.”
Shwartz Altshuler, head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Democracy in the Information Age program, spoke to the Post the day after she and her colleague Rachel Aridor Hershkovitz published a new policy paper through Brookings titled “Digital Contact Tracing and the Coronavirus: Israeli and Comparative Perspectives.”
She said that Israel failed to stop a second wave of coronavirus because the Health Ministry assumed it could rely on Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) surveillance to isolate positive patients rather than learn to increase testing or improve human contact tracing.
Moreover, use of involuntary tracing, such as through the Shin Bet, “could turn democratic countries, especially weaker democracies… into surveillance dictatorships” and could compromise personal privacy rights.
And, some 20% of people tracked by the Shin Bet were incorrectly put into isolation, which Shwartz Altshuler said is because the ministry used Shin Bet technology alone rather than in collaboration with human intelligence.
In addition to Shin Bet surveillance, Israel has now rolled out its HaMagen application, which can tell users if they have been in the presence of anyone who has been diagnosed with coronavirus. However, the report concluded that exclusive reliance on voluntary cell phone apps does not solve the Shin Bet dilemma, as they also provide an adequate solution for digital contact tracing on their own.
The solution: “Focusing on the search for solutions to the problems associated with the use of cell phone apps, even if some of these solutions lead to a greater infringement of privacy than does the voluntary reliance on decentralized apps,” the report reads. “With this in mind, it is necessary to draw up a plan for a broad and active campaign to encourage installation of the apps and to prefer the centralized approach that requires users testing positive for the coronavirus to transmit the contact history stored on their cell phone to the central server of the health services.”
If this solution is implemented, there are several factors to keep in mind: first, the purpose of tracking must be strictly limited.
“Tracking intended to identify contacts must be limited exclusively to the need to inform those exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 patient that they must enter quarantine,” they wrote.
Second, tracking should be carried out by civilian agencies that collect information but also have investigative or enforcement powers.
If there is going to be any infringement of privacy, it should be done only with individual consent.
People should be encouraged to install coronavirus apps, like HaMagen, through a substantial and public advertising campaign.
“Concepts from behavioral economics should be utilized to increase the app’s penetration among cell phone users,” they wrote. “For example, those who install it could be given priority for certain public services or offered material benefits.”
Shwartz Altshuler suggested that when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu make their weekly TV appearances, they should stress the importance of downloading HaMagen, rather than just telling people to wear masks.
Shwartz Altshuler said that when the Health Ministry rolled out HaMagen some 800,000 people instantly installed it. However, within days, many people had removed it from their phones.
She said the application, which is run on Bluetooth but also uses GPS technology, drains Apple iPhone batteries, a problem that has not been rectified.
Finally, solutions must be found for those who do not own smartphones, such as those within the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community. Also, everyone who is Shabbat observant would not have their smartphones with them in synagogue, where there has been a higher rate of infection for example, so there would need to be a solution for this, too.
The paper suggests that those who do not own smartphones or do not wish to install the app should be allowed to use a smart card, the size of a credit card, which operates in similar fashion as the app, as one option. This is something that has been proposed in New Zealand. In Singapore, the public was given wearable tracking bracelets.
She said that the country is likely to have more success working with a voluntary app if it ceased to use the Shin Bet, even for a small period, so that citizens felt the need to download HaMagen. “Doing both is not good,” she said, noting it causes confusion and makes downloading HaMagen seem useless.
“When lives are at stake, it is logical and even imperative to make use of every available technology,” Shwartz Altshuler added. “The question, as in other contexts of life, is one of proportion. Who tracks? Who is tracked? What information is collected? And who supervises all of this?
“Belief that technology can save us from this plague is not correct,” she concluded. “In the end, technology cannot replace basic best practices.”