Israeli PM defends use of surveillance technology to track Omicron cases

Rights groups criticise reintroduction of Shin Bet devices to curb spread of Covid variant

A medical worker takes samples  at the ‘check and go’ mass testing centre in east Jerusalem on Monday. Photograph: Atef Safadi/EPA

A medical worker takes samples at the ‘check and go’ mass testing centre in east Jerusalem on Monday. Photograph: Atef Safadi/EPA

 

Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett has defended a controversial move to use intelligence service tracking devices to keep tabs on individuals carrying the Omicron variant despite criticism from officials and human rights groups.

The surveillance technology used by the domestic Israel Security Agency, also known as the Shin Bet, matches virus carriers’ locations against other mobile phones nearby to determine with whom they have come into contact.

Mr Bennett said the phone tracking would be used to locate carriers of the new Omicron variant in order to curb its transmission to others.

In a phone call with Austrian chancellor Alexander Schallenberg and Czech prime minister Andrej Babis on how to combat the new variant, Mr Bennett defended the reintroduction of the controversial tracking Israel had used earlier in the pandemic.

“Because it’s very early and there is still a lot of uncertainty, we are using drastic steps,” he said.

Counter-terrorism

On Tuesday, Israel’s cabinet voted in favour of extending the counter-terrorism methods to stop the spread of the new variant and the measure will be brought before the Knesset parliament next week for approval.

However, leading officials have criticised the move and human rights groups have petitioned the high court.

State comptroller Matanyahu Englman noted that many people have already been sent into quarantine unnecessarily.

Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett defended the reintroduction of the controversial tracking. Photograph: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images
Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett defended the reintroduction of the controversial tracking. Photograph: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s very important to me that even in a time of a pandemic, Israel and all countries around the world protect privacy rights and act carefully,” he said.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the decision “violates the basic trust between the citizen and the government”.

The Privacy Protection Council also condemned the move, saying there was no justification for using such an extreme measure at this juncture.

Problematic

Deputy attorney general for criminal matters Raz Nizri agreed mobile phone tracking was problematic but said there was no choice. “The Shin Bet is not supposed to track citizens but there is an exception to every rule, and this is now the case,” he said.

The director of public health services in the health ministry, Dr Sharon Alroy-Preis, stressed the importance of tracking people carrying the Omicron variant, citing the case of the first of two confirmed cases in Israel.

The woman in question violated quarantine regulations and travelled on a public bus to the Red Sea resort of Eilat and told the contact tracers the wrong time for her journey. It was only due to the tracking device that the correct date was discovered, and only then were efforts begun to make contact with the other passengers on the bus.

Israel has also banned almost all foreigners from entering the country for two weeks and requires all returning Israelis to enter quarantine for 72 hours.