Israel spy agency joins anti-virus fight

Jerusalem Updated: Mar 17, 2020, 07:48 PM IST
main img
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (File photo) Photograph:(AFP)

Story highlights

The Shin Bet would also be able to use the location data of coronavirus carriers for the 14 days preceding their diagnosis to identify their routes and the people with whom they came in contact with

Israel's internal security agency Shin Bet confirmed Tuesday it has been mandated to collect information about citizens to fight the spread of the deadly coronavirus, a task it was undertaking with "immediate" effect.

The measure was declared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late on Monday under emergency regulations, after a parliamentary committee tasked with green-lighting the move refused to give it final approval, saying it needed more time.

The government "authorised the Shin Bet to put its advanced technologies in the service of the national effort to reduce the spread of coronavirus," a Shin Bet statement said Tuesday.

A Shin Bet spokesperson separately told the source that the policy has taken "immediate" effect.

Involving the spy agency in the fight against coronavirus sets "a dangerous precedent", according to Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), speaking before the emergency regulations.   

In the Shin Bet statement, agency chief Nadav Argaman said the agency was approached by the health ministry to help track coronavirus carriers "after it emerged that other authorities in the state do not have the necessary technologies".

"The Shin Bet is aware this is a task that goes beyond its routine anti-terror activities, therefore the request was discussed with and approved by the attorney general, with oversight and regulating mechanisms established," Argaman said.

Netanyahu's office refused to provide details about the monitoring techniques to be used.

But copies of the emergency regulations leaked to Israeli media showed that police would be able to retrieve location data of coronavirus carriers as well as quarantined people from phone companies, without a court order.

The Shin Bet would also be able to use the location data of coronavirus carriers for the 14 days preceding their diagnosis "to identify their routes and the people with whom they came in contact with," the leaked copy of the decision said.

'No active penetration'

Argaman said the information would be given to the health ministry and not saved by the Shin Bet.

He stressed that given the severity of the crisis Shin Bet had a responsibility to use its "unique skills" to help contain the pandemic.

Netanyahu had on Saturday said he wanted "technologies used in the war against terror" deployed against the COVID-19 disease.

His cabinet then approved the measures last Sunday.

But after the parliamentary committee delayed its approval, referring the issue to the new Knesset sworn in yesterday, Netanyahu announced that his cabinet would authorise the measures under emergency powers.

A security official told the source on Monday the Shin Bet would not conduct "active penetration into phones" and "there won't be cyber-attacks."

But using the security agency in a health crisis set "a dangerous precedent," said Shwartz Altshuler, who heads the IDI's Democracy in the Information Age programme.

Watch: Israel: After months of political deadlock, Oppn leader Gantz has been asked to form the govt

"What if tomorrow they're called in for an economic emergency?"

By drawing in a clandestine security agency to deal with a civilian health crisis, Shwartz Altshuler said, "Israel is not aligning itself with the democracies."

Netanyahu's continued tenure as premier is uncertain, with President Reuven Rivlin on Monday formally handing centrist rival Benny Gantz a mandate to try to form a new government.

Gantz has been given 28 days to put together a coalition, after he garnered recommendations from 61 out of 120 lawmakers on Sunday, in the wake of an election held on March 2 - Israel's third national polls within a year.