SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Shin Bet Tracks COVID-19 Patients in Israel

Monday , 01 June 2020

Mid-March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government approved a set of emergency regulations, authorising the Shin Bet to use cellular phone data, credit cards and other digital means to trace the movements of people infected with COVID-19 in Israel without any court order. The decision drew criticism from human rights organizations because it violates citizens’ privacy and undermines collective and individual freedoms. As a result, several groups, such as Adalahand The Association for Civil Rights, filed complaints before Israel’s High Court of Justice, which rendered its ruling, stating that such practice cannot continue unless the government brings it under legislation. Journalists would be excluded from the tracking to ensure the confidentiality of press sources. However, the court granted the government the right to approve an extension of the tracking for the coming weeks, on condition that it initiates the legislative process.


In an interview with SKeyes, lawyer Suhad Bishara, who works for Adalah, explained why her organization has filed a complaint before Israel’s top court. “Under the government’s emergency regulations, the Shin Bet is authorised to track COVID-19 patients’ cellular phones and credit cards without having relevant legal powers. This practice undermines citizens’ fundamental rights. This is why we decided to file a lawsuit but the prosecution claimed that this authorisation was legal to combat the spread of COVID-19. We were opposed to this measure because the Shin Bet’s work is, by law, related to security, and transparency is not its strong suit. It violates citizens’ privacy and dignity but also constitutes a breach of confidentiality between the doctor and the patient or the lawyer and the client for example”, she said.


“It is true that the court has accepted our petition. However, we, at Adalah, are worried about the extension period that could last for weeks. It allows the government to continue tracking citizens without any supervision. This illegal situation jeopardises citizens’ freedom and is incompatible with the constitutional basis of human rights,” Bishara added.


Court Excludes Journalists to Protect Sources

On April 26, the court also ruled that “monitoring of journalists confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19 can only be done with their consent. If they refuse, members of the media could seek an injunction against the practice in the following 24 hours, in order to protect their sources. However, the media professional should inform the sources with whom they have been in contact during the past two weeks that they have contracted the coronavirus.”


Also, Yasser Al Oqbi, chairman of the Committee for the Advancement of Arab Journalists in Israel told SKeyes that “the decision of the Israeli court is of utmost importance because it reiterates the importance of keeping media sources confidential, which is one of the basic prerequisites for press freedom. The court’s ruling shows that authorities cannot track journalists even in a state of emergency, such as wars or situations like the COVID-19 pandemic. But how can we ensure that the judiciary monitors the enforcement of the decision, knowing that the security services operate in total secrecy?”


Monitoring Techniques: The Use of Anti-Terrorism Technology

At the time of drafting this report, there are more than 16,650 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirms that “the country is using anti-terrorism technology” to track infected people and anyone with whom they have come in contact to reduce the spread of the virus. This technology has been used for several years to track and control Palestinians.


Nadim Nashif, director of 7amleh, the Arab Centre for Social Media Advancement, also shared his thoughts with SKeyes. “There is no legal monitoring in the Palestinian context. In a democratic country where the regime is not oppressive, the right balance for public interest in case of a pandemic is first for a civilian body to carry out the mission, such as the Ministry of Health that holds the data. Second, the period during which such information is stored is important. In many countries, it is limited to 30 or 60 days. After that, the data is erased. The third issue is to know who is entitled to access such information. Is it the Ministry of Health or any security or intelligence service? There are restrictions worldwide to make sure the applied measures take into account public health and respect people’s privacy,” he said.


“The databank gathered by the Israeli government includes the Palestinians and has been accessed by all security and military agencies, which is problematic. We are talking about fighting a pandemic so why is the data being viewed by all these services? It is a very sensitive issue because the police can file an indictment against a specific person mentioning they were in a specific area in a context that has nothing to do with the pandemic,” Nashif continued.


“Palestinians from the West Bank who work in Israel have been under a lot of pressure since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis when civil administration services closed. The authorities forced them to download “Al Munasiq” (The Coordinator), a mobile application for work permits and magnetic cards. According to a report published in Haaretz, the application allows the army to access the cellular phone data such as pictures, camera, etc. The newspaper tried the application and it turned out that it is really intrusive. Palestinian workers are forced to introduce a little spy to their phones, which is a massive violation of their digital rights. All human rights organizations recommend not to download the mobile application to prevent this little spy from accessing your information”, Nashif added.


“It is clear that governments took advantage of people’s fear to act at their whim. Action was considered legal because it supposedly protects citizens and their health. However, there is a big difference between the governments that adopted these measures with certain restrictions such as defining how long the data will be preserved or who can access it and use it, and those who implemented new laws and regulations without any restrictions, thus violating citizens’ freedom and rights, even when the COVID-19 pandemic ends,” he concluded.


In light of the pandemic, Israel found a new excuse to track its citizens but also to spy on Palestinians through technologies that the authorities usually use for “anti-terrorism” purposes by allowing the Shin Bet to monitor people infected with COVID-19. It is a clear violation of privacy and both collective and individual digital rights.

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