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On Wednesday evening, 400 Israeli citizens received a text message that read: “According to epidemiological research, you were close to a coronavirus carrier. You must go into isolation.”
These Orwellian messages were the first use of a new digital surveillance system the Israeli government has implemented to try and curb the spread of coronavirus. But it has done so without any parliamentary oversight, and the system’s legality is already being challenged in court.
Israel has reported a significant spike in cases in recent days, with a total of 529 cases now confirmed — though it has yet to report any deaths from coronavirus.
“In order to make the process of conducting an epidemiological investigation more efficient, to shorten the process and accurately reach those who were in contact with a coronavirus carrier, we are starting to use technological tools,” the Health Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday evening.
But the term “technological tools” significantly underplays the powerful system that Israel’s security services now have at their disposal, a tool which critics say will erode citizens’ right to privacy. Israel joins a growing list of countries, including China and Iran, that are using the coronavirus crisis as cover to increase surveillance of their citizens.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the transitional government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unanimously approved emergency regulations to enable the General Security Services and the police to gather location data from the cell phones of people who test positive for coronavirus or are suspected of being infected.
The cellular data allows the security service to retrace the movements of those people and track anyone they have come within six feet of for more than ten minutes. Those who have come in contact with a confirmed or suspected coronavirus patient are sent a text message telling them to self-quarantine for 14 days.
The new regulations remove the need for judicial approval to use the existing law, which was previously used for counterterrorism efforts.
“In the message, they were informed of the date that they were near the sick person and the fact that they must enter [14 day] home-quarantine immediately,” the Health Ministry said after the first wave of messages were sent out on Wednesday.
The text messages did not name the infected person or give any other identifying information, and the ministry said that the surveillance system only allows for a device to be tracked, and doesn’t give the security service access to its contents.
But citizens, politicians, and privacy advocates have slammed the new system, claiming it has been implemented without the proper oversights in place to ensure it is not abused.
Opposition leader Benny Gantz called the move a “power grab” criticizing the government for making the decision without any oversight. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel called the move “a dangerous precedent and a slippery slope.”
The legal adviser to Israel’s parliament the Knesset, Eyal Yanon, said Wednesday that the government's plan was “a serious infringement of democratic values.”
The High Court of Justice on Thursday morning began hearing a petition against the tracking measures filed by the Adalah legal center and the Association for Civil Rights, who claim the regulations violate the privacy of the citizens in a disproportionate way.
But Israel is far from the only country to be using the coronavirus crisis as a cover to undermine citizen’s rights to privacy by enabling location surveillance in the name of safety.
In China, the government enabled a new color-coded surveillance system to track people in quarantine, and also sent people’s location data to the police. In South Korea, authorities updated a 2015 law to allow them to collect a huge amount of personal data, including credit card transactions and locations.
And in Iran, the government sent every citizen a message to download an app that claimed to diagnose coronavirus. Instead, it collected detailed location information and enabled real-time tracking of everyone using the app.
Cover: People wear face masks as they shop at a food market in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. The head of Israel's shadowy Shin Bet internal security service said Tuesday that his agency received Cabinet approval overnight to start deploying its counter-terrorism tech measures to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus in Israel. For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)