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22 Apr, 2020 18:10

Israel forbids police from using cell phone data to enforce Covid-19 quarantine, but citizens still spied-on with anti-terror tech

Israel forbids police from using cell phone data to enforce Covid-19 quarantine, but citizens still spied-on with anti-terror tech

The Israeli parliament has forbidden police from using cellphone data to enforce the coronavirus lockdown. However, authorities may still use technology developed by the country’s spy agency to track the movements of the infected.

A parliamentary oversight committee suspended police use of cellphone data on Wednesday, a month after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved the measure. 

Describing the data use as a “great violation of privacy,” committee member Ayelet Shaked said on Twitter that Israeli citizens are “for the most part” complying with stay-at-home orders, and police can make do with conducting home visits to enforce this.

Despite the ruling, Israeli authorities can still make use of technology developed by domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet to track the movements of coronavirus carriers and their associates. The exact technology used is a secret, but lawmakers have praised its effectiveness, with one government official telling Reuters that plans are underway to expand the surveillance dragnet to anyone crossing paths with confirmed carriers.

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The rollout of Shin Bet surveillance on the Israeli population has drawn an outpouring of anger. More than a thousand protesters descended on Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Sunday to decry their loss of privacy, in a protest made even more newsworthy by the strict social distancing observed by its participants.

Israel has one of the most developed intelligence sectors in the world, but is not the only country to experiment with tracking its citizens during the coronavirus pandemic. In Europe, a German-led effort is underway to track the movements of infected people through cellphone data, with a view to alerting anyone who may be in close proximity to them. European privacy laws are strict, however, and any tracking apps will have to abide by a data-protection framework.

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Across the Atlantic, tech giants Apple and Google have developed their own tracking software, and have said that this software will eventually be built into their respective operating systems by default. The US government has not yet endorsed any contact-tracing software, but some states - as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - have spoken out in favor of the technology.

Britain and France are currently in discussions with Apple and Google to implement coronavirus case tracking software.

Israel has recorded more than 14,000 cases of coronavirus and 187 deaths since the outbreak. The country has been under lockdown for over a month, but the government announced on Wednesday that some of the restrictions would be lifted, with outdoor prayer allowed again and certain stores reopening. However, a nationwide curfew will be in effect on Independence Day and Memorial Day - both next week - and during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

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