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Israel passes emergency law to use mobile data for COVID-19 contact tracing

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Women use mobile application software on smartphone phone
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Israel has passed an emergency law to use mobile phone data for tracking people infected with COVID-19 including to identify and quarantine others they have come into contact with and may have infected.

The BBC reports that the emergency law was passed during an overnight sitting of the cabinet, bypassing parliamentary approval.

Israel also said it will step up testing substantially as part of its respond to the pandemic crisis.

In a statement posted to Facebook, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote: “We will dramatically increase the ability to locate and quarantine those who have been infected. Today, we started using digital technology to locate people who have been in contact with those stricken by the Corona. We will inform these people that they must go into quarantine for 14 days. These are expected to be large – even very large – numbers and we will announce this in the coming days. Going into quarantine will not be a recommendation but a requirement and we will enforce it without compromise. This is a critical step in slowing the spread of the epidemic.”

“I have instructed the Health Ministry to significantly increase the number of tests to 3,000 a day at least,” he added. “It is very likely that we will reach a higher figure, even up to 5,000 a day. To the best of my knowledge, relative to population, this is the highest number of tests in the world, even higher than South Korea. In South Korea, there are around 15,000 tests a day for a population five or six times larger than ours.”

On Monday an Israeli parliamentary subcommittee on intelligence and secret services discussed a government request to authorize Israel’s Shin Bet security service to assist in a national campaign to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus — but declined to vote on the request, arguing more time is needed to assess it.

Civil liberties campaigners have warned the move to monitor citizens’ movements sets a dangerous precedent.

According to WHO data, Israel had 200 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of yesterday morning. Today the country’s health ministry reported cases had risen to 427.

Details of exactly how the tracking will work have not been released — but, per the BBC, the location data of people’s mobile devices will be collected from telcos by Israel’s domestic security agency and shared with health officials.

It also reports the health ministry will be involved in monitoring the location of infected people to ensure they are complying with quarantine rules — saying it can also send text messages to people who have come into contact with someone with COVID-19 to instruct them to self isolate.

In recent days Netanyahu has expressed frustration that Israel citizens have not been paying enough mind to calls to combat the spread of the virus via voluntary social distancing.

“This is not child’s play. This is not a vacation. This is a matter of life and death,” he wrote on Facebook. “There are many among you who still do not understand the magnitude of the danger. I see the crowds on the beaches, people having fun. They think this is a vacation.”

“According to the instructions that we issued yesterday, I ask you not leave your homes and stay inside as much as possible. At the moment, I say this as a recommendation. It is still not a directive but that can change,” he added.

Since the Israeli government’s intent behind the emergency mobile tracking powers is to combat the spread of COVID-19 by enabling state agencies to identify people whose movements need to be restricted to avoid them passing the virus to others, it seems likely law enforcement agencies will also be involved in enacting the measures.

That will mean citizens’ smartphones being not just a tool of mass surveillance but also a conduit for targeted containment — raising questions about the impact such intrusive measures might have on people’s willingness to carry mobile devices everywhere they go, even during a pandemic.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that the US government is considering similar location-tracking technology measures in a bid to check the spread of COVID-19 — with discussions ongoing between tech giants, startups and White House officials on measures that could be taken to monitor the disease.

Last week the UK government also held a meeting with tech companies to ask for their help in combating the coronavirus. Per Wired some tech firms offered to share data with the state to help with contact tracing — although, at the time, the government was not pursuing a strategy of mass restrictions on public movement. It has since shifted position.

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