Israeli Government Bypasses Parliament, Approves Surveillance on Civilians to Fight Covid-19

After a parliamentary subcommittee refused to grant police and Shin Bet the authority to use technological means to monitor the location of coronavirus patients, the Israeli government utilized the country’s permanent state of emergency to pass the regulations

Omer Kabir 13:1817.03.20
On the night between Monday and Tuesday, bypassing the Israeli parliament (the Knesset), the Israeli government approved new regulations allowing it to use technological means and data from cellular communication companies in order to track coronavirus (Covid-19) carriers and people they have been in contact with, without a warrant.


The new regulations were hastily approved in a government meeting gathered last night after the Knesset’s subcommittee for secret services refused to approve them without thoroughly examining their implications. In order to pass the regulations, the government used its authority under Israel’s state of national emergency, which was put in place on the day of the country’s foundation in 1948 and was never canceled. The state of emergency allows the government to establish national security-related legislation valid for a period of up to three months without oversight from the Knesset. In many cases, such emergency regulations are later extended, becoming permanent laws.

Coronavirus (illustration). Photo: Alex Kolomvisky Coronavirus (illustration). Photo: Alex Kolomvisky


The government approved two separate sets of regulations. The first gives the Israel Security Agency, also known by its Hebrew acronym Shin Bet, the authority to “receive, collect, and process technological information” concerning the location and activity of confirmed patients in the 14 days prior to their diagnosis in order to identify people they have been in close contact with.


The data collected by Shin Bet will be transmitted to Israel’s Ministry of Health and state authorities will be barred from using it for any purpose other than assisting the ministry in epidemiological investigations. The regulations specifically state that Shin Bet will have no direct contact with patients and will not be involved in any related enforcement activity.


Overseeing the process will be the sole authority of Israel’s attorney general who will receive data from Shin Bet and the health ministry concerning the number of patients on which technological information was gathered as well as the number of people that have been in contact with them and identified using these means. The exact nature of the types of technological means to be used and of information to be gathered will be defined by Shin Bet and will require the approval of the attorney general.


These regulations are now in force for a 14-day period but can easily be extended. Shin Bet is required to delete the information it gathered as soon as the regulations expire but the health ministry can keep the information for an additional 60 days for “internal inspection.”


The second set of regulations allows the Israeli police to force mobile telecommunication companies to provide the location information of confirmed coronavirus patients, “for the purpose of warning the public or a specific person, all for the prevention or reduction of the virus’ spread.” The regulations specifically note this practice would require no court order or warrant.


The police could also get location data on citizens that are required to go into home quarantine according to the country’s anti-Covid-19 regulations. Data on these people, which include anyone that arrived in the country since March 9 or has been in contact with someone who was diagnosed as positive, will be collected sporadically and transmitted to the health ministry for the purpose of confirming quarantine regulations are being followed. This set of regulations specifies no expiration date but also gives the ministry the authority to maintain the gathered information for 60 days after they expire.


In a statement released Tuesday, Shin Bet Head Nadav Argaman said he was aware of the great sensitivity of the new regulations, which is why he ordered only a very limited number of agents will be involved in gathering and processing the information. It is the Shin Bet’s duty, Argaman wrote, to contribute some of its “unique capabilities” to the national effort to fight off the virus.