TEL AVIV – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night announced that Israel would begin using digital tracking tools relying on cellphone data to track carriers of the coronavirus, sparking condemnation over privacy concerns from his main political rivals.
“Until now I avoided using these measures in the civilian population but there is no choice,” Netanyahu said in a live televised address to the nation.
He described the current coronavirus crisis as a “war with an invisible enemy” and said that the use of digital tracking, while it constitutes a violation of people’s privacy, was a necessary evil in winning that war.
Netanyahu said Taiwan, which, like Israel, has 200 confirmed carriers of the virus, has also employed the use of cellphone data to track the spread of the virus.
However, unlike Taiwan, the GPS data that Israel will use will not be used to determine whether those under quarantine are indeed staying in their homes as ordered, the Shin Bet security agency said Sunday.
“It should be stressed that in any case, there is no intention of using these capabilities to enforce or monitor quarantine instructions,” the security service said.
Rather, the data will track the past movements of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“As part of the legal consideration, it was decided to put a variety of restrictions on the measures that would be used, mostly in terms of the duration of their operation, the legal oversight of their operation, and the use of the information that is collected,” Mandelblit said.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu was slammed over the move.
The head of the left-wing Meretz party, Nitzan Horowitz, described it as “a harsh blow to privacy and basic freedoms” that should never be allowed in a democratic country.
The Blue and White party’s MK Moshe Ya’alon, who also served as Israel’s defense minister, warned that Netanyahu was becoming like Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. The new measures were part of “the cynical exploitation of the coronavirus crisis for the personal, political interests of a defendant before trial,” Ya’alon wrote on Twitter.
Former Justice Minister, MK Ayelet Shaked from the right-wing Yamina, acknowledged that while Netanyahu’s proposed technological surveillance is an “extreme move and a grave violation of privacy” it was a necessary one that would “save lives and money.”
“I intend to personally monitor the operation and ensure that it is done in a minimal and controlled manner, and will be stopped immediately after the crisis passes and that the stored data is wiped clean,” she added.
In his address, Netanyahu also said that all recreational businesses, such as movie theaters and malls, would be shuttered. Gatherings of more than 10 people in the same place would be barred. Israel has also closed all kindergartens, pre-schools, schools and universities until further notice.
200 Israelis have been confirmed to have contracted the virus, although there have been no deaths so far. Two are in serious condition.