Big Brother is back to tracking citizens because Netanyahu fell asleep on the job
What started as an extreme emergency measure is turning into the norm because the authorities failed to come up with alternatives
When framed in this way, the choice seems obvious. What else can we do? Die of the virus? However, if that is where things stand, an arguable point in and of itself, we only got here because the government dragged its feet on taking any action that could avoid the dichotomy. The long and drawn out lockdown the Israeli public and economy was subjected to had one primary goal: to slow the spread of the virus as much as possible so as to give the authorities a chance to prepare to cope with it in the long term. And it was successful in that regard. The authorities managed to use the time to fortify their testing capabilities and prepare the hospitals to be able to treat large numbers of patients.
It was convenient for the government to fall back on the readily available option of turning to the spy agency, an option no other Western country in the world has chosen. “The Shin Bet contingency atrophied decision-makers’ ability to try and build or operate a civilian alternative,” Karin Nahon, an associate professor at IDC Herzliya and an expert on online media told Calcalist. “They are trying to manufacture a slogan claiming that use of the Shin Bet surveillance program will save lives and keep the economy running, but it is a lie. Not a single democratic country is making use of its espionage capabilities and many of them have already re-opened. There are a variety of viable life-saving alternatives, such as tracing applications, better education, epidemiological surveys, and extensive testing.
“Use of technological surveillance measures by the Shin Bet is harmful to privacy because it requires constant tracking of our mobile phones’ cellular signals and the gathering and processing of information without our permission. But the bigger story is the shifting of the balance of power between the state and its citizens. We all want to save lives and no one is proposing to forfeit it. But it is possible to do both and in this case, the government decided to blindly pursue the more problematic option,” Nahon said. Or in other words: The Shin Bet option is available and ready to go, so why even bother trying to find alternatives?
It genuinely seems like Israel took only minimal efforts to prepare contingencies. The Magen app, for example, has only been downloaded 1.6 million times and is only used by half that number of people. No one invested in a publicity campaign informing the public about it or urging them to use it. A survey conducted last month by Eran Toch from the Department of Industrial Engineering at Tel Aviv University found that only a fifth of respondents had even heard about the app.
On the other hand, respondents expressed grave fears of the government’s use of the surveillance program. “35% of respondents understood that they could leave their phones at home in order to circumvent the tracking,” Toch told Calcalist. “Such issues point to an acceptance of the norm whereby it is possible to evade tracking. If people who are at high risk of infection or subject to quarantine decide to leave their phones at home or use a different device, the system’s effectiveness will be hampered. A large majority of respondents to our survey said they didn’t believe the data would truly be erased.”
Hagai Levine, chairman of the Association of Public Health Physicians also spoke out against using the cellular tracking tool. “No evidence has been provided to prove that use of the Shin Bet’s program to track instances of infection is effective,” he said. “It has been proven that it erodes public trust, wastes resources, and causes cases of mistaken identity and unnecessary quarantines. The government should focus on developing human capabilities that are the foundation of research and promote civilian technological solutions.”