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Israel’s coronavirus surveillance is pushing limits

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Another story of apparent government overreach in response to the coronavirus pandemic is appearing, this time out of Israel.

“You can’t just give up on democracy during a crisis,” Association for Civil Rights in Israel spokesperson Maya Fried summed it up, speaking on behalf of all those who don’t think that a mass surveillance tool invading citizens’ phones might be the right way to go about a virus epidemic.

The group is known for going to court in Israel on multiple occasions trying to overturn the use of surveillance tools that are said to be normally used to tackle terrorist activity.

In that context – fully expectedly – but equally unsettlingly given its new application in an actual viral disease context, reports said that the tech is quite secretive – having originally come out of Israel’s domestic security service Shin Bet (a loose counterpart to UK’s MI5, Russia’s FSB, or the US’s FBI).

What is known, however, is that the tool (this is not an app installed by choice) has been in use for the past 20 years and was designed to collect metadata from any user of the country’s telecommunications services – including web browser history, calls and texts and of course, the device’s physical location.

With this rich experience of tracking people, in March, Shin Bet was asked to help curb the spread of the virus, using what methods it knows and has at its disposal. In the end, it was supposed to be another “contact tracing” operation – but unlike in most countries, a practiced internal spy agency was called in to shore up the effort – which Israel’s health authorities still believe provided the right balance between protecting individual freedoms, and public health.

But it was by no means a smooth ride, since the tool’s application summoned a court case that saw its use not outlawed, but subjected to some limitations, and a hope that “a civilian alternative” in the form of a phone app might take its place. (This has not yet happened.)

Apparently, even Shin Bet was initially reluctant to participate in this particular undertaking – but what’s done is done. Now critics are worried there may not be any “proper oversight on how the Shin Bet data is gathered, stored, used or deleted.”

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