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Shin Bet halts surveillance of coronavirus patients

With Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman reluctant and faced with public objections, the Israeli government has suspended consideration of a bill legalizing the electronic tracking of those infected with the novel coronavirus.
A mobile phone with HaMagen application on it is seen in this picture illustration taken on April 1, 2020. REUTERS/Nir Elias/Illustration - RC2PVF9RFE4T

Israel’s Shin Bet has reportedly suspended its monitoring of coronavirus carriers as of June 9. One day earlier, the cabinet put on hold a proposal to legalize the tapping of phones of infected citizens.

When the coronavirus crisis broke out last March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the Shin Bet to assist the Health Ministry by surveilling the phones of those infected, ostensibly to notify citizens that were in contact with infected people that they need to be tested for the virus. But Netanyahu’s initiative sparked controversy, with human rights groups arguing it infringed on privacy rights. The High Court ruled against the continued surveillance without a law in place. Faced with growing objections, the government produced a bill that would offer the Shin Bet a clear legal framework in which to operate.

Now it seems that Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman was never enthusiastic about the agency engaging in this task. It was apparently Argaman’s reluctance that tipped the scale on June 8, leading the cabinet to back off from adopting the bill. Argaman said at the meeting that the Shin Bet did not feel comfortable using wiretapping to track coronavirus carriers.

Confronted with Argaman’s opinion, the cabinet decided to suspend the bill for the moment. It will now undergo further work for review by the ministerial committee. This way, the more refined bill could later be pushed through the Knesset in a matter of weeks or even days if needed. The longer preparation of the bill will also enable the Shin Bet to prepare for the possibility of its passage.

The cabinet did push forward another controversial proposal, enabling the extension of emergency regulations to fight the pandemic.

Israel is facing a new surge in infections, though experts say the country is not necessarily facing a second wave of the pandemic. According to the most recent data from June 9, 18,089 coronavirus cases are currently registered in Israel.

Speaking on June 8, after a meeting of a special ministerial coronavirus forum, Netanyahu announced that the government was freezing the easing of restrictions that had been expected in the coming days. “We have just finished a meeting of the Corona Cabinet. It opened with a briefing by experts who showed us that there has been a very steep increase in morbidity. It could be that we are already seeing the doubling of the rate of infection within 10 days. I very much hope not,’’ said Netanyahu.

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