Israel spy agency joins anti-virus fight

Jonah MANDEL
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared emergency measures allowing the Shin Bet internal spy agency to access coronoavirus carriers' mobile phone records, according to leaked details of the emergency regulations

Israel's internal security agency Shin Bet said Tuesday it has been mandated to collect information about citizens to fight the spread of the deadly coronavirus, a task it was undertaking with "immediate" effect.

Involvement of the spy agency in tackling the pandemic has raised concerns about adherence to democratic norms, with one legal expert fearing it harms "trust and legitimacy" and an analyst describing it as a "dangerous precedent".

The measure was approved by the government under emergency regulations, overriding a parliamentary committee that on Monday had withheld final approval, saying it needed more time to ensure proper safeguarding.

The government "authorised the Shin Bet to put its advanced technologies in the service of the national effort to reduce the spread of coronavirus," a Shin Bet statement said Tuesday.

A Shin Bet spokesperson separately told AFP that the policy has taken "immediate" effect.

"The Shin Bet is aware this is a task that goes beyond its routine anti-terror activities," Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman said in the agency's statement, adding that "oversight and regulating mechanisms" had been established.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office refused to provide details about the monitoring techniques to be used.

But copies of the emergency regulations leaked to Israeli media showed that police would be able to retrieve location data of coronavirus carriers -- as well as quarantined people -- from phone companies, without a court order.

The Shin Bet would also be able to use the location data of coronavirus carriers for the 14 days preceding their diagnosis "to identify their routes and the people with whom they came in contact with," the leaked material said.

- 'Cloak & dagger' -

Argaman said the information would be given to the health ministry and not stored by the Shin Bet.

Gabi Ashkenazi, who heads the parliamentary committee that withheld approval, said Tuesday that using Shin Bet against the virus was not appropriate "without parliamentary and public supervision."

Ashkenazi, a member of the Blue and White coalition that rivals Netanyahu's Likud party, called for a new foreign and defence committee to "implement the supervision necessary by law."

Netanyahu's cabinet had approved the move at his behest on Sunday, before it moved to parliament for consideration.

Netanyahu defended his later emergency move, saying that "even an hour's delay using these tools could lead to the death of many Israelis".

In a statement, the premier's office also claimed parliamentary deliberations could have taken "many days."

He and his attorney general therefore "swiftly" approved the emergency measures that are valid for 14 days, during which time lawmakers can express their reservations.

Michael Birnhack, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, said the coronavirus crisis has been steered into a security issue.

"Instead of trust and solidarity ('do you agree we check your location?') we've gone into cloak and dagger, suspicion lack of trust," he wrote on Twitter.

"It might be efficient but it harms trust and legitimacy," he said.

"The intentions here are good, but the path is problematic. The fear is this will remain long after the crisis is over."

Speaking before the emergency regulations, Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) said involving Shin Bet would set "a dangerous precedent" that risked being a precursor to interventions in other sectors.

A security official told AFP on Monday the Shin Bet would not conduct "active penetration into phones" and "there won't be cyber-attacks."

Netanyahu's continued tenure as premier is uncertain, with President Reuven Rivlin on Monday formally handing centrist rival Benny Gantz a mandate to try to form a new government.

Gantz has been given 28 days to put together a coalition, after he garnered recommendations from 61 out of 120 lawmakers on Sunday, in the wake of an election held on March 2 - Israel's third national polls within a year.