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Israeli Government Criticized For How It Monitors COVID-19 Cases


What if authorities could track your movements to warn you if you have gotten close to someone infected with the coronavirus? Israel has started doing that. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israeli authorities say yesterday, 400 people got the following text message - shalom, according to an epidemiological investigation on such and such a date, you were near someone sick with the coronavirus. Omer, who withheld his last name over privacy concerns, got that message last night and told his friends on Facebook Big Brother is here.

OMER: I'm not necessarily against it, but it definitely makes you think, you know, what other private personal information they have access to and if it's being used in the, you know, appropriate way.

ESTRIN: On orders of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Shin Bet domestic spy agency is running this new surveillance program tracking telephone data. When someone has tested positive for the coronavirus, the Israeli spy agency traces where that person's cellphone went over the past two weeks, the incubation period for COVID-19. And if your cellphone was nearby, you get a text message. Sharon Perri is a cellular tracing expert.

SHARON PERRI: From my experience, the GPS technology, in civil standard, is not that accurate. But even a resolution of 10 meters is good enough to isolate people from corona-infected people that are in the area.

ESTRIN: But that's not the 2-meter or 6-foot distance health officials advise to minimize exposure. It's likely that many Israelis who weren't close enough to a virus carrier will still be ordered to isolate. Perri thinks the breach of privacy is justified.

PERRI: But I guess that when you have a global pandemic, there is, like, a kind of justification for this move.

ESTRIN: Police are also using cellphone data to catch Israelis who violate their home quarantine orders. All Israelis who were abroad in the last two weeks must stay at home. Attorney Gil Gal Mor is appearing before Israel's Supreme Court today to demand an end to the surveillance program. He's with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

GIL GAL MOR: I think that people in Israel in general are willing to limit their right to privacy if it comes to combat terrorism or the Palestinians or other enemies, and now people find out the Shin Bet and the police know exactly where they are in any second. People are now awakening and understanding the problem of giving too much power to the government when it comes to our privacy.

ESTRIN: Netanyahu's Cabinet approved the phone surveillance program in the middle of the night, before a parliamentary oversight committee finished debating whether it was justified. The speaker of Parliament, a Netanyahu ally, suspended all Parliament meetings until next week. The center-left opposition says Netanyahu is subverting democracy.



ESTRIN: This TV interviewer asked Netanyahu whether that's true.



ESTRIN: He says it's the last thing he'd do and that he has asked for maximum oversight to protect Israelis' private data. Rivka Carmi is a health sciences professor.

RIVKA CARMI: You know, the streets would be full of people protesting against those moves.

ESTRIN: But now groups of more than 10 are forbidden from gathering. She says what's needed in Israel is more medical testing for the virus and offering the public proof that mass surveillance of cellphones can save lives.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLDTWIG FEAT. LIME KAIN'S "DUNES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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