2 with masks
© AP/Ariel Schalit
It's been several days since Israel began using a mass surveillance system - initially developed by the country's internal secret service (Shin Bet) - to track coronavirus patients and alert those who have been in proximity to them that they too could be contagious and thus should isolate themselves for 14 days.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who initiated the move, said the system was a pivotal tool to curb the spread of COVID-19, which has claimed the life of one person. More than 800 others are being treated for the virus in hospitals across the country.

The technology also enables Israeli police to ensure that those quarantined remained indoors, as images emerge showing dozens of Israelis taking to the beach despite calls to avoid crowds.

Israeli radio reports suggest that based on the system the police conducted 12,000 home visits in recent days and filed a hundred criminal complaints against those who dared to breach the newly imposed restrictions.

More Harm Than Good

But for Jonathan Klinger, a cyber law attorney, the use of Shin Bet technology might do more harm than good.
"There is no limit to what the Ministry of Health can do [with the data it receives on those infected by the virus] and there is no penalty for abusing the powers granted".
The executive order signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Sunday stipulated that Israel's secret service, which has access to Israelis' phones for the next 30 days, would need to delete the information immediately after the decree becomes null and void. The Ministry of Health, however, has 60 more days to retain the information.

Adding that the initiative poses a security threat to Israeli citizens, Klinger said:
"I don't know whether I can trust the ministry [to erase the data] and I have no guarantee that mistakes won't happen and that this information would not be leaked."
A Tool to Harm Israel's Democracy

Even more so, it also presents a challenge to Israel's democracy, believes the expert.
"Netanyahu simply decided to avoid the oversight of the Parliament, the Knesset, and this is something that shouldn't be done."
Under other circumstances, bills proposed by the government go through the Knesset whose role, in this case, would be to supervise Shin Bet's use of the data collected.

Although initially the PM's initiative was brought to the attention of the special security agency committee that mulled over the bill, it didn't approve it, asking for clarifications and expert opinions. Netanyahu was in a rush, saying "every minute mattered", and asked the committee to approve the initiative regardless, a request that was swiftly rejected.

Then came the swearing-in ceremony of the new Knesset who prompted the dissolution of the institution's previous committees, including the one that blocked Netanyahu's bill.

Realising that the establishment of a new panel would take time, primarily because of the political deadlock that has paralysed the country, Netanyahu seized the opportunity to bypass the Knesset sparking the rage of Israel's High Court of Justice who ruled on Thursday that Shin Bet's tracking will be stopped if the committee is not set up by Tuesday.

Tracking System as Last Resort
"That decision [by Netanyahu] was super troublesome and should have been used as a last resort, and here they did have other means to achieve the same result."
One of the suggestions was to get the consent of coronavirus patients to have access to their mobile phone contacts. Once such permission was granted, cellular operators would then be able to send a text message to all the people on that list, telling them to quarantine themselves.

Another option was to implement an app - currently being used in conjunction with Shin Bet's tracking system - that once downloaded would collect the whereabouts of its holders without sending them to the authorities. Yet, if infected, the person would be able to release the information by clicking on a button.

Netanyahu, however, opted for another route. The reason for this, thinks Klinger, is the prime minister's habit of thinking about security rather than public welfare.
"It's totally an issue of how you think. When you are busy fighting terrorists for so many years, you are trained to think security. The problem is that it creates a dangerous precedent and next time things go wrong, [the government] might opt for taking this path again. But this is the wrong way forward. If we opt for executive orders instead of legislation, it will eventually have a negative impact on our democracy".