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In the early days of the pandemic, Israel began using a mass surveillance tool on its civilians, tracking people’s cellphones in hopes of stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

The government touted the technology, normally used to catch wanted Palestinian militants, as a breakthrough against the virus. But months later, the tool’s effectiveness is being called into question and critics say its use has come at an immeasurable cost to the country’s democratic principles, the Associated Press reports.

“The idea of a government watching its own citizens this closely should ring the alarm,” said Maya Fried, a spokeswoman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has repeatedly challenged the use of the tool in court. “This is against the foundations of democracy. You can’t just give up on democracy during a crisis.”

Little is known about the technology. According to the Yediot Ahronot daily, the Shin Bet internal security service has used the tool for two decades, sweeping up metadata from anyone who uses telecom services in Israel.

A woman uses her smartphone in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on 23 December 2020.

A woman uses her smartphone in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on 23 December 2020. Photograph: Maya Alleruzzo/AP

Information collected includes the cellular device’s location, web browsing history and calls and texts received and made, but not their content. That has reportedly helped the agency track militants and halt attacks, although it is unclear what happens to all of the data.

Israel first brought the Shin Bet into its virus outbreak battle in March. By tracking the movements of infected people, it could determine who had come into contact with them and was at risk of infection, and order them into quarantine.

With the limited contact tracing capabilities of Israel’s health ministry, the Shin Bet was seen as the best option to pick up the slack, even though its own leaders were reluctant to deploy the tool. The Shin Bet declined to comment.

Officials say the technology has been a critical tool in keeping track of the outbreak and insist they have struck a balance between protecting individual rights and public health.

“We believe that the cost is certainly reasonable,” Yoav Kisch, the deputy health minister, told a parliamentary committee last month. “We haven’t seen this tool be used exploitatively. This tool saves lives.”

Initially, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used emergency regulations to approve the use of the tool. After the hasty deployment was challenged in court, the government was forced to legislate limits on its use in July, submitting it to some parliamentary oversight.

Critics say there is no proper oversight on how the Shin Bet data is gathered, stored, used or deleted.


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