Israel deploys cyber-monitoring against coronavirus

Phone data to be used to trace route and vicinity of infected amid directives to stay home

The Israeli government began deploying mobile phone-monitoring technology against coronavirus on Tuesday and urged people not to leave home unless necessary.

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s cabinet approved emergency regulations enabling the Shin Bet security service to tap into cellular data to retrace the movements of the infected.

The data, customarily used for anti-terrorism, will be used by the health ministry to locate and alert those who have been in their vicinity, the government said.

Such cyber monitoring would normally require parliamentary ratification and judicial oversight. Mr Netanyahu, who announced the measure on Monday, circumvented the process by invoking the emergency orders.


In a separate move, the health ministry published new directives telling people to largely remain at home. A justice ministry official described the directives as recommendations rather than compulsory measures that can be enforced by police.

Separately, Israel’s defence ministry said 2,500 military reservists were being called up to help manage the crisis.

Small gatherings

The health ministry directives added beaches and parks to a list of places – including schools, shopping malls, restaurants and theatres – that have been closed to the public. No more than 10 people are supposed to gather together.

But the ministry said Israelis could still go to work – many businesses are operating with reduced staff to try to halt the virus’s spread – and shop for food and medicine, exercise briefly outdoors and walk their dogs.

In a signal the restrictions could prove protracted, a health ministry official said Israelis celebrating Passover next month should do so "with nuclear family only". A highlight of the Jewish calendar, Passover is usually a time for hosting extended family and guests, and sees a tourism influx to Israel.

The use of anti-terrorism technology to track infected people and anyone with whom they have come in contact drew criticism from civil rights groups when Mr Netanyahu first proposed it over the weekend.

Israeli authorities said the cyber monitoring, in effect for the next two weeks, was aimed only at halting the spread of coronavirus and would ultimately be deleted.

‘Slippery slope’

But the Association for Civil Rights in Israel called the move “a dangerous precedent and a slippery slope”.

Gabi Ashkenazi, a senior member of the centrist Blue and White Party, also criticised the use of emergency orders. "It's inappropriate to approve such a measure in this manner, without public and parliamentary supervision," he wrote on Twitter.

His party leader, former general Benny Gantz, could be the next prime minister after he was tapped by Israel's president on Monday to try to form a new government following a March 2nd election, the third within a year

However, justice minister Amir Ohana dismissed the criticism. "The concerns of those disturbed by cyber monitoring are outweighed by the threat we are facing," he told Israel Radio.

There are 324 confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel. In the Palestinian territories, 41 have been confirmed in the occupied West Bank, with none in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian government instructed Palestinians working in Israel to find accommodation there, saying they would be barred from travelling there as of Friday. It also asked Palestinians to cease working in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as a precaution against a coronavirus spread. – Reuters