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Israel Joins Totalitarian States Using Coronavirus to Spy on Citizens

Iran and China, too, are turning powerful intelligence-gathering networks on their own people. Is the U.S. next?

An Israeli soldier wearing a face mask enters a train on March 16, 2020 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced emergency measures to combat COVID-19 after more than 300 Israelis tested positive. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

At 1:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, Israel joined Iran and China in focusing the powerful intelligence gathering tools of the state on its own citizens—all in the name of containing the coronavirus outbreak.

In the dead of the night, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized advanced digital surveillance and monitoring tools to be deployed on Israeli citizens, without court order, in an effort to track coronavirus carriers.

Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, will be allowed to use personal cell phone data and information such as which cell tower a device pings to, to retroactively track the movements of carriers of the “coronavirus in order to see with whom they interacted in the days and weeks before they were tested in order to place those people in quarantine,” reportsThe Times of Israel. This means that “any person in Israel could come under surveillance” of the Shin Bet, “an organization with no public transparency requirements” that reports directly to the Prime Minister.

The decision came after Netanyahu appeared ready to close down most of the court system and deploy the measure without Knesset approval Saturday night.

“The public outcry over these measures and accusations of an effective coup by the government over the other branches led Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri to assure a group of journalists on Sunday night that the Shin Bet would not start its surveillance without Knesset approval,” reports The Jerusalem Post.

The government ultimately authorized the surveillance in the middle of the night between Monday and Tuesday, without Knesset approval. The program removes a 30-day limit that Netanyahu had promised, and instead authorizes surveillance to continue an additional 60 days after the government’s state of emergency ends.

“Because the pandemic is spreading at an incredibly fast pace, postponing using these tools by even an hour could cause the deaths of a very large amount of Israelis,” Netanyahu said.

“I can assure you all unequivocally: There isn’t and won’t be a ‘Big Brother’ in the State of Israel, even in the framework of an extreme event like what we are dealing with now,” wrote Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich in a tweet on Sunday.

Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashenazi called the decision “surrendering transparency” and “political thievery.”

Israel’s new citizen surveillance program builds on a 2002 counterterrorism law that gave the Shin Bet direct access to cellular data, bypassing cell phone companies.

Netanyahu’s political rival Benny Gantz was tasked with forming a government Monday afternoon, and critics argue Netanyahu’s caretaker government does not have the authority to circumvent the relevant committees and single-handedly approve the sweeping measures.

“The government approved in the dead of night, in a move of underhanded opportunism the emergency regulations, despite the fact that the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee started discussing the matter yesterday, without given the option to seriously delve into the issue and complete deliberations,” tweeted Gabi Ashkenazi, former chair of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“It’s inappropriate to approve such a measure in this manner, without public and parliamentary supervision,” he continued. “I call to allow the establishment of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (which was dissolved on Monday as the new Knesset was sworn in) as soon as today in order to immediately discuss the issue, and activate the necessary supervision as stated by the law.”

Israel’s new regulations come as governments around the world adopt increasingly draconian measures. Iran rolled out an app ostensibly for the purpose of informing the public of coronavirus symptoms, but which actually spied on Iranians.  The Communist government of China has brought the full weight of its mass public surveillance and social credit system to bear, using face recognition software, apps, drones and CCTV cameras to enforce quarantines.

Domestic police forces in Europe are adopting measures that would have been unthinkable in democratic societies a few months ago. The U.K. plans to give police new authority to detain people and place them in isolation. Police in Madrid, Spain are deploying drones with cameras and loudspeakers to order people in parks and on the streets to go home.

“We will not hesitate to use all the means at our disposal to ensure your security and that of everyone,” Madrid’s Police Force tweeted. “Although some still make it difficult for us.”

Amid talks that the Trump administration is seeking location data from tech giants like Google and Facebook, democratic governments around the world are balancing citizens’ civil liberties and public health.

“Israel is a democracy — we must uphold the balance between the rights of individuals and the public needs. And we are doing this,” said Netanyahu.

about the author

Barbara Boland is TAC’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Previously, she worked as an editor for the Washington Examiner and for CNS News. She is the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General George Patton in World War II, and her work has appeared on Fox News, The Hill UK Spectator, and elsewhere. Boland is a graduate from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.  Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.

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