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Israel: Government’s Extended Authorization for Coronavirus-Related Surveillance Approved

(Nov. 4, 2020) On October 12, 2020, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (KFADC) of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) approved for the fifth time, by a majority vote, the government’s declaration authorizing the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) “to carry out aid operations in the effort against the coronavirus” (tracing assistance) in the period from October 8, 2020, to October 28, 2020.

According to the KFADC’s press release, the approval was granted in accordance with the Law on Authorization to Assist in the National Effort to Reduce the Spread of the Novel Coronavirus and to Promote the Use of Civilian Technology to Trace Those Who Have Been in Close Contact with Patients (Temporary Order), 5780-2020. The law was initially adopted by the Knesset on July 1, 2020, and amended on July 21, 2020 (Contact Tracing Law).

ISA Tracing Assistance

During the period in which the government authorization was in effect, the ISA could provide the Ministry of Health (MOH) assistance in tracing and processing “technological information.” Such information would apply to location data regarding patients in the period up to 14 days before the date of diagnosis in accordance with the professional guidelines of an MOH representative. For persons who came into close contact with the patient, the ISA could provide the MOH identification data and the date, location, and time when they were last in close contact with the patient. (§ 5(a).) The sharing of “technological information” would not include the content of conversations as defined in the Secret Wiretapping Law, as amended.

The law requires that, to the extent possible, any ISA tracing assistance will be provided digitally, while maintaining the privacy and dignity of the patient and of persons with whom the patient came into close contact. (Contact Tracing Law § 5(d).) ISA tracing assistance may be provided on the basis of a request by the MOH. A patient must be informed by the MOH of his or her positive diagnosis, and of the objective of the MOH request for ISA tracing assistance. A person who has been informed of having been in close contact with an identified patient must similarly be informed of this finding and of the way to find more information and, if needed, to appeal the finding. (§§ 6–8.)

The law requires that the head of the ISA establish an operational procedure protocol for tracing assistance. The protocol must be approved by the attorney general and will be brought to the attention of the Knesset Committee on Service Affairs. The protocol is confidential and its disclosure or publication is prohibited. (§ 9.) As compared with the confidential procedures that apply to ISA operations, the MOH procedures for handling contact tracing must be published on the MOH website after being approved by the attorney general. (§ 10.)

Effectiveness of ISA Tracing Assistance

According to the MOH report, the success rate of the ISA tracing assistance in identifying coronavirus patients is only 13.5%. Inconsistent and conflicting data was presented at the KFADC’s recent meeting. For example, the Privacy Authority, the regulatory authority charged with overseeing preservation of the fundamental right to privacy, reportedly found that the ISA surveillance tool has a success rate of only 6%.

Israeli media reported that the use of ISA technical tools for contact tracing has resulted in many Israelis avoiding the use of cell phones in an effort to prevent being identified as having been in close contact with coronavirus patients, which would result in a mandatory quarantine.