Israel's "virus surveillance tool" provides a chilling look at privacy in the age of COVID

Even as Israel has enjoyed rapprochement with several Arab states that have traditionally been enemies over the past year, they’ve also been hit hard by the pandemic, as have most nations of the world. But the government’s response and efforts to slow the spread of the disease has been significantly different than what we’ve seen in the United States. America has had more than its share of lockdowns and quarantines, along with reminders to engage in social distancing and contact tracing. But the Israelis have taken the idea of contact tracing to an entirely new level. As this report from the Associated Press explains, Israel’s citizens have endured a level of scrutiny that has democracy advocates up in arms. A cellphone location tracking tool normally used to identify and detain terrorists cooperating with the Palestinians was unleashed on the entire country’s population. The stated purpose was to determine who had been in close proximity to people who tested positive for the novel coronavirus, but the intrusive nature of the tool has left many people alarmed.

In the early days of the pandemic, a panicked Israel began using a mass surveillance tool on its civilians, tracking people’s cellphones in hopes of stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

The government touted the technology, normally used to catch wanted Palestinian militants, as a breakthrough against the virus. But months later, the tool’s effectiveness is being called into question and critics say its use has come at an immeasurable cost to the country’s democratic principles.

“The idea of a government watching its own citizens this closely should ring the alarm,” said Maya Fried, a spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has repeatedly challenged the use of the tool in court. “This is against the foundations of democracy. You can’t just give up on democracy during a crisis.”

The tool is a product of the Shin Bet internal security service. There is no option to opt-out of “participation” in the program because it accesses anyone with a phone who connects to any of the telecom services in the country. The system collects the location data of the user and that data can be compared to everyone who has a positive COVID test to determine who else they were in contact with. The tool is capable of far more than that, however. It can record people’s web browsing history and calls and texts, though the government is assuring everyone that those non-location functions are not being used on the general populace.

This isn’t quite as bad as it could be. For one thing, the original decision to use the tool was enacted via an executive order from Netanyahu, but after a court challenge, the legislature had to step in and legalize its use. Also, the law orders the government to delete the tracking data for those not accused of terrorism and other crimes after a certain period of time. Assuming that all of that is true, the program isn’t on quite the same level of a dystopian nightmare as what’s being seen in China and North Korea, for example.

Still, there’s plenty to be concerned about. There is pretty much zero transparency when it comes to the inner workings of Shin Bet and nobody really knows the specifics of how much data is collected and how long it is stored. On the one hand, when your nation is under constant attack from terrorists who literally sit on your borders, catching them before they can unleash even more death and destruction is going to be one of your top priorities. Knowing who everyone is, where they have been and who they’ve been talking to is basically a requirement to keep your people safe. But on the other hand, Israel is supposed to be a democracy, or at least something pretty close to it. We don’t typically associate this level of intrusive scrutiny with the idea of freedom and governmental restraint.

For its part, the Israeli Ministry of Health insists that they’ve struck the right balance between safety and privacy, noting that there have been no incidents of the Shin Bet data being exploited.

“We believe that the cost is certainly reasonable,” Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch told a parliamentary committee last month. “We haven’t seen this tool be used exploitatively. This tool saves lives.”

That may be the case, but as with anything that has to do with government secrecy, it’s usually not the things you find out about that are the problem. It’s the stuff going on behind the curtains that worries you. That’s the argument being put forward by privacy advocates including some legislators on the parliamentary committee overseeing the tool. They complain that the tool has effectively created a “dragnet” that’s swept up tens of thousands of contacts inaccurately. Nearly one million Israelis have been sent into 14-day quarantines by the tool since July, with only 46,000 eventually testing positive.

This should provide a lesson for American voters as we get closer to some level of herd immunity and the crisis abates. Some sacrifices have to be made in the midst of a true disaster where the government has to respond quickly and forcefully. But as one protester in the linked report said, you can’t just give up on democracy during a crisis. Checks on the authoritarian impulses of our elected leaders are needed now far more than during more “normal” times.