No need to fear Shin Bet technology for curbing corona

Anyone who is terrified that tracking cell phones for health reasons is a slippery slope to an Orwellian dystopia should get a grip. The sole purpose of enlisting the aid of the Shin Bet is to keep the virus at bay.

Israel Security Agency Director Nadav Argaman at the 8th International UVID Conference at the Avenue Convention Center in Airport City, on November 7, 2019. Photo by Flash90
Israel Security Agency Director Nadav Argaman at the 8th International UVID Conference at the Avenue Convention Center in Airport City, on November 7, 2019. Photo by Flash90
Ruthie Blum. Photo by Ariel Jerozolomski.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, former adviser at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is an award-winning columnist and senior contributing editor at JNS, as well as co-host, with Amb. Mark Regev, of "Israel Undiplomatic" on JNS-TV. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, and on U.S.-Israel relations. Originally from New York City, she moved to Israel in 1977 and is based in Tel Aviv.

During the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Israeli government unanimously approved an additional emergency measure to track and trace the steps of citizens infected with COVID-19.

The decision to use the Shin Bet internal security agency’s digital technology as a weapon in the war on the coronavirus did not come as a surprise. Indeed, in one of his many press conferences to update the public on the global pandemic in general and on specific directives to prevent its spread in Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that discussions were underway on how best to implement the controversial move without egregiously violating civil and human rights.

Netanyahu acknowledged the problematic nature of employing methods normally reserved for surveilling terrorists to monitor everybody. This, he said, was why he was in consultations with legal and security experts to come up with a formula that safeguards public health and provides guarantees of minimal privacy invasion.

Falsely calling the move “clandestine”—because the decision on its immediate implementation was taken in the middle of the night—critics are going wild, attacking it and Netanyahu from every direction. Although the technology in question tracks cell phones, the argument about individual liberty has been upstaged by coalition politics and legalese. The 23d Knesset was only sworn in on Monday, for example, and the next government has yet to be formed.

Of course, the fact that the number of corona patients continues to rise—with former Ichilov Hospital/Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center director Professor Gavriel Barabash estimating that it will reach 10,000 in the next three weeks if Israelis don’t start taking the rules and recommendations more seriously—does not leave much room for the slow turn of the wheels of justice.

As Netanyahu’s office wrote in a statement on Tuesday, “The pandemic is spreading at an enormous pace. A delay of even a single hour in using these [surveillance] tools could result in the death of many Israelis, as is happening … in Italy and in other places in the world.”

Anyone who is terrified that Netanyahu has nefarious motives—or that tracking phones for health reasons is a slippery slope to an Orwellian dystopia—should get a grip. The sole purpose of enlisting the aid of the Shin Bet is to keep corona at bay.

According to the protocol, the Shin Bet will follow the movements of those diagnosed with the virus in the days leading up to their quarantine or hospitalization. In addition, it will be able to detect the identity of the people who were in the vicinity of those patients during the incubation period in order to inform them directly that they were exposed to the virus and need to quarantine themselves or get tested.

The Artificial Intelligence technology not only enables the swift processing of the above data, but can detect whether those who are infected or exposed are adhering to their quarantines. After a period of 30 days, the information will be deleted.

Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman confirmed this on Tuesday, saying that his agency accepted the request of Health Ministry experts out of a sense of “national responsibility and the understanding that we possess the ability to assist in the saving of lives.”

Argaman explained that the reason the government turned to the Shin Bet was because “other state authorities do not have the necessary technological capability to help in this particular effort.”

He also assured that many discussions were held with Justice Ministry representatives and the attorney general, who gave the green light for the use of the technology.

“As the head of the Shin Bet, the sensitivity of this issue is very clear to me, and as such, I ordered that only a limited group of our staff will deal with it, and also that the information will not be kept in [our] databases,” he said.

Instead, he added, it will be transferred directly to Health Ministry officials for use in handling the corona crisis.

“At no stage will the Shin Bet engage in the monitoring or enforcement of quarantines,” Argaman stressed.

He and Netanyahu can be believed. This is not some kind of trick to slip in a Big Brother regime while the public is vulnerable to a virus. Even if it were, the ploy would never work. The abundance and genius of computer nerds in the country—and hyper-hysteria of the media—far outweigh government efficiency and performance in all realms.

Furthermore, as every smartphone owner knows, the privacy ship sailed long ago. At this point, every nail salon and car manufacturer is able to target us through our contact lists and apps. To fret over the Shin Bet helping the Health Ministry to locate us during an outbreak of a contagious disease is as anachronistic as it is ridiculous.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”

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