Lost in the intensive news coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic is a story that got relatively coverage in the mainstream Western media. Recent moves by what remains of Benjamin Netayahu's caretaker government passed legislation that is intended to monitor that nation's COVID-19 outbreak.
Let’s start with some interesting background on how Israel has dealt with the pandemic to this point in time. Israel has gone so far as to supply its citizens with a complete daily listing of all Israeli locations where people have tested positive as well as the dates and times that infected persons were at various locations throughout the city/town:
Here is a translation of the text at the top of the page:
List of verified patients
This list lists the places where the confirmed patients were staying. Anyone who has been in these places on dates and times is required to immediately enter a home for 14 days and report it on the Ministry of Health website.
Here is a translation of one of the examples on the listing:
Rishon Lezion (Israel's fourth largest city)
12.02.2020: 23: 30-24: Supermarket "Happened to" supermarket, 24 Etzel St. Rishon Lezion.
March 14, 20, 20: 00-20: 30, "Teva Castel" store, complex G, Tehran children 5, Rishon Lezion.
14.3.2020 20:30 – 21:30 Twenty-four seven, Cinema City, Rishon Lezion.
March 12, 2020: 23:30 – 24:00 "Osher Ad" supermarket, 24 Etzel St., Rishon Lezion.
Now, let's get to the subject matter of this posting. Here is the news as reported by the Times of Israel:
Here is the same news as reported by Haaretz:
The decree instructs the Internal Security Agency (better known as Shin Bet), Israel's security agency, to covertly access the cellphones and credit card data of Israelis that are tested and found to be infected with the latest iteration of the coronavirus.
Here is how the Government of Israel website rather generically reported the move:
Here is how Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported the news:
It is reported that the plan was approved by cabinet members without the approval of the Knesset which was sworn in the same day, bypassing the normal oversight of a special parliamentary committee that had already been reviewing the legislation.
While the entire plan has not seen the light of day and is being withheld from public scrutiny, it appears that the data will be used for a limited period of 30 days, at least at this point in time. Geolocation data and other metadata that is routinely collected by Israel's telecommunications companies will allow police to find people that have come into close contact with known COVID-19 virus carriers and send them text messages, ordering them to immediately go into quarantine. Some reports suggest that the ISA will also be able to access the records showing the location data of people two weeks prior to their coronavirus positive diagnosis.
In an interview with Associated Press, Shin Bet's head Nadav Argaman stated the following:
"The other state bodies don’t have the necessary technological means to aid this effort. I am well aware of the sensitivity of this matter and therefore have instructed that only a very limited number of agents will be handling this and the information will not be saved in the Shin Bet database.”
This precedent-setting use of private data is the "foot in the door" when it comes to government's invasive use of our personal data, allegedly for the greater good. The use of cell phone and credit card data as tools of mass surveillance is an idea that governments around the world would love to implement as a means of control. In fact, recent developments in Canada's largest city, Toronto, suggest that the city government is using cellphone data to help it identify locations where people have assembled in groups, assemblies that are clearly banned under Ontario's Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. While Toronto's mayor is not currently requesting individually identifiable cellphone data, this move suggests that governments are on the slippery slope, heading downhill to George Orwell's 1984 dystopian reality.
Final thoughts. There is, however, one very simple way of working around this additional government surveillance. Simply leave your cellphone at home when you go out. Those of us who lived unscathed through the pre-cellphone days know that one can survive quite nicely without being permanently attached to a smart device.
After I finished writing this posting, this news item appeared on CBC News, Canada's public broadcasting network:
Here is a further comment from Canada's Prime Minister:
"But I've said, all options are on the table to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe in these exceptional times."
Justin Trudeau is the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who invoked the draconian War Measures Act during the 1970 FLQ crisis. Here are his comments from October 13, 1970 on the presence of Canadian troops on the streets of certain cities that were tasked with protecting cabinet ministers and senior government officials in Canada to a CBC reporter, Tim Ralfe:
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