Israel's top court says government must legislate COVID-19 phone-tracking

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Citing grave dangers to privacy, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled on Sunday that the government must bring its use of mobile phone tracking deployed in the battle against the new coronavirus under legislation.

FILE PHOTO: People walk on the platform at Israel's new high-speed rail line station at Ben Gurion International Airport, in Lod, near Tel Aviv September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Circumventing parliament in March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet approved emergency regulations that enabled the Shin Bet internal security service to tap into cellular data to retrace the movements of people infected by the virus.

The technology, customarily used for anti-terrorism, has since yielded data used by the Health Ministry to locate and alert those who have been in their vicinity. The practice has been subjected to some parliamentary oversight following a subsequent court ruling.

Accepting petitions from Israeli rights groups, the Supreme Court said the government must begin legislation by April 30 and complete it within a few weeks if it wanted to continue tracking people’s phones in its bid to stop the virus spreading.

“The state’s choice to use its preventative security service for monitoring those who wish it no harm, without their consent, raises great difficulties and a suitable alternative, compatible with the principles of privacy, must be found,” the court said.

Citing freedom of the press, the court also ruled that monitoring of journalists confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus can only be done with their consent. If they refuse, members of the media could seek an injunction against the practice, in order to protect their sources.

“We must take every precaution to ensure that the extraordinary developments with which we are dealing these days do not put us on a slippery slope in which extraordinary and harmful tools are used without justification,” said the ruling.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), one of the groups which petitioned the court, hailed the ruling as a victory.

“Israel must not be the sole democracy which operates its secret security service to monitor its citizens, even in the fight against the coronavirus,” ACRI said on Twitter.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said he was concerned by the court’s decision because the Shin Bet “has had a critical contribution in curbing the pandemic and allowing us to gradually lift the lockdown, giving Israel’s citizens back their freedom of movement and occupation.”

Israel, which has a population of about 9 million, has reported more than 15,000 coronavirus cases and 201 deaths. With about 100 COVID-19 patients on ventilators and 2,000 hospital beds on standby, the government has begun to ease restrictions.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Daniel Wallis