'Slippery slope': Israel draws flak over coronavirus surveillance

Emergency regulations draw criticism for allowing authorities to retrace movements of people infected by COVID-19.

    An Israeli firefighter sprays disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus in Modiin, Israel [Ariel Schalit/AP]
    An Israeli firefighter sprays disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus in Modiin, Israel [Ariel Schalit/AP]

    Israel's government has begun deploying cellphone-monitoring technology against the coronavirus pandemic, drawing criticism from the opposition and a rights group who called it a "dangerous precedent".

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet approved the emergency regulations - which came into effect on Tuesday - that will enable the Shin Bet internal security service to tap into cellular data to retrace the movements of people infected by the virus responsible for the disease, COVID-19. 

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    Israel, which has already vastly restricted international travel and closed all sporting and entertainment venues, has confirmed 324 coronavirus cases, but no deaths from the illness yet.

    Under the new regulations, cellular data, customarily used for "anti-terrorism" measures, will be used by the Health Ministry to locate and alert those who have been in their vicinity. 

    Such cyber-monitoring would normally require parliamentary ratification and judicial oversight, but 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 barring residents from leaving home for "non-essential" reasons and stopped night-time public transport, tightening already strict measures to fight the spread of coronavirus.

    The 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 it said Israelis could still go to work, shop for food and medicine, exercise outdoors and walk their dogs.

    "Even when leaving the house for these purposes, contact between people should be limited, and they should stay two metres apart," a ministry statement said.

    "You should maintain social contacts by media and not entertain friends or family unless they live in your building," it added. 

    The statement did not say when the new regulations would come into force and it remained unclear if police would be enforcing the tightened restrictions.

    'Dangerous precedent'

    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 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.

    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 2 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 said on Israel Radio.

    Twenty new coronavirus cases were confirmed in Israel on Tuesday. In the Palestinian territories, 41 have been confirmed in the occupied West Bank, with none in the Gaza Strip.

    The coronavirus emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan last December, and has spread to nearly 150 countries and territories. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a pandemic. 

    SOURCE: News agencies