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3 Dec, 2021 07:37

Spy agency stops tracking Omicron carriers

Spy agency stops tracking Omicron carriers

The Israeli government said it won’t seek to extend the controversial surveillance program in which its security agency, Shin Bet, tracked people infected with the Omicron Covid-19 variant through their phones.

“It has been decided not to continue using it [surveillance] at this time,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said in a joint statement on Thursday.

The move was made in line with government policy which calls for tracking to be “used sparingly and examined on a daily basis,” the statement read.

The surveillance program, which was first implemented during the peak of the pandemic in Israel last year, was brought back on Sunday, with cabinet members expressing unease that it had to be done. The measure came as part of the Jewish state’s response to the Omicron strain, which also included the closing of Israel’s aerial borders for foreigners, and designating most of Africa (rather than just the southern part of the continent, where the new variant was discovered) as a ‘red zone’.

The extension of the program beyond midnight on Thursday required the government to seek approval from the parliament (the Knesset), but there has been little support among MPs.

The public has also expressed outrage over the program, with four human rights groups filing a petition to the Supreme Court for the measure to be scrapped. It was rejected just hours before the statement from the PM and health minister came out.

However, Bennett and Horowitz insisted that phone tracking “contributed in the past week to the effort of cutting off the chain of infection.”

The surveillance, however, can still be reintroduced in the future if the “morbidity circumstances” deteriorate, they said.

Horowitz later took to Twitter, explaining that the government decided not to continue with phone tracking because, “alongside protecting health, we need to also safeguard privacy and human rights, even at a time of emergency.”

The surveillance tech used by Shin Bet matches the location of the infected person against other nearby phones to determine who may have come into contact with the person.

So far, Israel has registered three cases of Omicron, with several dozen other people suspected to have been infected.