Israel plans to deploy electronic counterterrorism measures to track the movements of people who might be infected with the coronavirus, officials said, a confluence of crime fighting and public health that could become more common even as it sparked civil liberty concerns.
Officials did not specify the techniques to be used but hinted they would include monitoring individuals’ cellphone locations, presumably without their consent, as well as the more sophisticated electronic intelligence and data analysis that Israel is known to have in its terror-fighting arsenal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced the initiative in a televised address Saturday night, acknowledged that applying Israel’s vaunted digital surveillance tools could infringe on privacy.
He said it was an acceptable price for slowing the spread of the virus.
“We are one of the few countries with this capability, and we will use it,” he said. “We must do everything, as a government and as citizens, to not become infected and not to infect others.”
Israel, which has reported 200 cases of the virus and no deaths, has already proved willing to take sweeping measures to stave off a wider outbreak.
Netanyahu announced that restaurants, bars and museums across the country would shut down indefinitely. Gatherings of more than 10 people are banned (10 is the minimum number for a minyan, a quorum of adult men required by orthodox Judaism for certain religious obligations).
The country previously closed schools until at least the middle of April and won’t let anyone, citizen or visitor, enter the country without a two-week quarantine.
Israel’s digital surveillance technology systems could prove to be an effective health tool, analysts said, because the question in monitoring coronavirus patients and terrorists is largely the same: Who are their contacts?
“In both cases, you’re trying to track back in history to determine who has been where and who has met whom,” said Zak Doffman, owner of a London-based surveillance firm and a cybersecurity columnist for Forbes magazine. “I can’t imagine there won’t be dozens of countries thinking about doing the same thing.”
Doffman said there’s evidence such techniques have already been employed.
China seems to have utilized its mass surveillance tools, including facial recognition, as it restricted movement in hard-hit areas, he said. Taiwan reportedly used geolocation systems to ping the cellphones of people detected outside of their quarantine locations.
In Iran, Doffman said, the Health Ministry had to disavow an official coronavirus information app after it was found to include tracking software.
Netanyahu said his government is asking Israel’s judicial system to preapprove the repurposing of digital surveillance in the health fight. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit indicated the move would be legal, given Israel’s state of emergency, and promised proper oversight. He called for the measures to be reviewed by the cabinet and the appropriate parliamentary committees.
But civil liberties advocates condemned the use of digital surveillance against the civilian population.
“We must maintain that we also have a democratic state to live in,” Merav Michaeli, a Labor Party member of the Knesset, said in a tweet.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the move is unnecessary and harmful.
“According to what is known as of now, infected persons are cooperating with the authorities in reporting all of the locations they have visited,” said Avner Pinchuk, a lawyer for the association. “Even if we assume that here and there a person might ‘forget’ of a particular meeting or location, the marginal benefit obtained by technologically tracking locations does not justify the severe infringement of the right to privacy.”
Simon Perry, a former police intelligence operative, said the cyber-techniques bring both benefits and dangers to Israel’s coronavirus fight.
“This a very effective tool to track movement and interactions between people,” said Perry, now a professor at Hebrew University’s Federmann Cyber Security Research Center. “But it also gives tremendous power to the government. We have to be sure we are in a situation where this is necessary.”
As in many countries, Israel is largely relying on an honor system to maintain tens of thousands of people under home quarantine — a population that includes Israelis who have recently returned to the country and those who may have been in proximity to an infected person.
But the government has been willing to enforce the isolation when needed. A video circulating on social media over the weekend showed a man being arrested by a police officer in protective gear, reportedly for leaving quarantine.
Officials Sunday were said to be considering new fines for isolation scofflaws and police announced stepped-up efforts to corral them as the country sought to balance order and patience during the crisis.
Among the cancellations and closures announced over the weekend was the postponement of Netanyahu’s own trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The proceeding was to begin Tuesday in Jerusalem District Court, just as he is jockeying to form a government following a third inconclusive election earlier this month.
It’s now set to begin May 24.