04/28/2020, 00.00
ISRAEL
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Israel’s Supreme Court bans Shin Bet’s COVID-19 tracking

For the court, Israel’s security agency cannot extend its reach without new legislation. The use of special powers cannot go beyond 30 April as it raises obvious privacy issues and can have harmful consequences. Initially, tracking might have been done “in good faith” but in a situation of political turmoil it is a risk, source tells AsiaNews.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Israel's Supreme Court has banned Shin Bet, the country’s intelligence agency, from tracking the phone location of those infected with COVID-19.

A month ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the agency powers to contain the coronavirus pandemic under the existing state of emergency, but the court accepted the arguments of a petition brought by various rights groups, noting that new legislation is needed.

In late March, Israel’s caretaker government authorised Shin Bet to use, among other things, technology to track the movements and contacts of infected people to limit the pandemic. So far, local health authorities have reported about 15,000 cases in the country with more than 200 deaths.

For the Supreme Court, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, must legislate in the matter if monitoring is to continue after 30 April. The latter, according to the Court, raises privacy issues, especially in terms of metadata collection and conservation.

Until recently, this kind of monitoring was centred on Hamas terror suspects, their relatives and friends. But doing the same for more than eight million Israelis raises evident constitutional as well as ethical issues, and can lead to a "slippery slope" with harmful consequences.

In its decision, the Court said that any new tracking legislation must include a provision to exempt journalists who become infected so that they can protect their sources.

A government source, anonymous for security reasons, told AsiaNews that initially, tracking might have been done “in good faith;” however, this cannot go beyond the limits set by the law and the Constitution.

At the same time, "it makes no sense to track people whilst letting Israeli citizens back into the country without tracking or quarantining them, which are not being done at present.”

The issue of tracking people comes at a time when the country is going through a period of political turmoil. Last week the two former rivals, Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, struck a deal to form a national emergency government.

“For days, protests against the future government have continued, partly because the agreement it may be unconstitutional, an issue that is before the court. If it is struck down, the political situation will be upended. Under the circumstances, tracking people brings obvious problems.”

So far, Shin Bet has not reacted, but Yuval Steinitz, energy minister in the caretaker cabinet, the ruling is “worrying”. In his view, the Court is guilty of “excessive and unnecessary intervention”.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, one of the groups which brought the court challenge, welcomed the decision.

In a statement, it said that “Israel must not be the only democracy operating its secret security service to monitor its citizens, even in the fight against the coronavirus.”

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