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Israelis wearing face masks, protective suits
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Illean

Israel to use counterterror tools on quarantine dodgers

March 15, 2020

Netanyahu says authorities would implement cyber technology for real-time monitoring of cellphones to spot breaches. The measures would reveal where a person has been and with whom, spurring privacy concerns.


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel intends to deploy anti-terrorism tracking technology to monitor coronavirus carriers, as well as enact a partial shutdown of its economy to curb further spread of the pathogen.

In a news conference in Jerusalem, Netanyahu announced that authorities would use such measures to locate people who have been in contact with individuals carrying COVID-19.

"We will very soon begin using technology … digital means that we have been using in order to fight terrorism," Netanyahu said, adding that he had requested the Justice Ministry's approval as the measures could violate people's privacy.

"We are at war with an enemy: the coronavirus," Netanyahu said. "An invisible enemy that must be located." Netanyahu said Israel would follow similar methods deployed by Taiwan, which despite its close proximity to the outbreak's epicenter on mainland China, has kept its number of COVID-19 infections below 55. 

'Intrusive' new measures

According to Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu said that he had been "given the green light by the Justice Ministry to use intelligence tracking tools to digitally monitor coronavirus patients without asking them."

Israeli domestic security service Shin Bet confirmed that it was analyzing the use of technological mechanisms to combat the coronavirus, at the request of Netanyahu and the Health Ministry.

In a statement, the Shin Bet said the tools would not be used for quarantine enforcement or tracking in the context of isolation guidelines. 

The tools could still expect to see real-time monitoring of infected individuals' mobile phones to uncover any quarantine breaches and backtrack through meta-data to reveal where exactly they had been and with whom they had been in contact.

Avner Pinchuk , a privacy expert with the Association for Civil Rights, said he is concerned by the extent to which the measures could intrude on a person's privacy, Reuters reported.

"I am troubled by this announcement. I understand that we are in unique circumstances, but this seems potentially like over-reach. Much will depend on how intrusive the new measures are," said Pinchuk.

Israel accelerates action

Israel also announced that restaurants, hotels, shopping malls and theaters will shut down from Sunday to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. Only essential service providers including pharmacies, supermarkets and banks would continue to operate.

Earlier Sunday, an Israeli court said Netanyahu's trial would be delayed for two months due to concerns about coronavirus. The prime minister is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases.

On Saturday, the Israeli military had ordered all troops to return to their bases by Sunday morning and said combat soldiers should be ready for a long stay with no leave for up to a month.

According to the Health Ministry, Israel currently has 193 confirmed cases of COVID-10 and no deaths. 

mvb/ng (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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