Israel’s Shin Bet security service will use data harvested from millions of mobile phones to triangulate the locations and travel patterns of people exposed to coronavirus in one of the most comprehensive national surveillance exercises anywhere in the world.
The programme, authorised this week by caretaker prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an emergency measure, allows Shin Bet to tap into a trove of metadata including location, identity and other markers that the country’s mobile phone operators are required to maintain as part of their license agreement.
Mr Netanyahu, in announcing the move, said the measure was temporary and would be carefully regulated. “Israel is a democracy. We must preserve the balance between individual rights and general needs, and we are doing so,” he said.
But privacy advocates, opposition politicians and even some members of Mr Netanyahu’s own party have expressed concern over the reach of the programme and the accountability of Shin Bet. Mr Netanyahu took the decision without consulting parliament and against the objections of members of his security cabinet, according to one person familiar with the discussions.
Mobile phone companies have provided Shin Bet with access to customer data since the early 2000s, but the intelligence agency is only supposed use it in cases involving terrorism or national security.
The mass surveillance will continue for at least the next fortnight, according to the decree, and Shin Bet says it will share information with the ministry of health, rather than get involved in enforcing violations of quarantine.
The agency was initially reluctant to use its surveillance powers to assist the health ministry because of the spotlight it would place on its secretive operations but it was ordered to do so by the prime minister’s office, said a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified.
“This is not what we do, and not what we are trained to do,” the person said. “But it’s a time of national emergency.”
In theory, the technology will allow the health ministry to locate people who have been in the vicinity of infected or dormant carriers of the coronavirus and retroactively warn them to go into self-isolation, according to two people familiar with the initiative.
The government has not clarified why this work has to be done by Shin Bet, which is usually not subject to civilian oversight, rather than by the Israeli police, the health ministry itself or another government body.
In a short statement to the media, Nadav Argaman, Shin Bet chief, said he had sought legal advice before going ahead with the programme and that the data collected would be handled by a small number of staff and deleted afterwards. Shin Bet declined to comment further.
Privacy advocates said they were concerned by the speed with which the decision was made, without parliamentary oversight, and by the fact that the secret service is shielded from public scrutiny by a thicket of national security laws.
“The Shin Bet itself is a body which is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. It is not transparent. It’s a secret service,” said Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. “There’s hardly any judicial review over its actions. So I have no guarantee that this information is not going to be used against some of the citizens of Israel in other circumstances.”
One of the leaders of the Joint List of Arab Parties, Ayman Odeh, asked for an immediate suspension of the programme, warning that it “obliterated a basic civil right in the middle of the night.”
“We know that what is called ‘temporary’ always turns into permanent, so we must immediately halt spying on citizens,” Mr Odeh said in a statement.