May 24, 2020 / 5:19 PM / a month ago

Israel limits coronavirus cellphone surveillance to 'special cases'

People visit a beach along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea during a heatwave in Israel as restrictions following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) ease around the country, in Tel Aviv, Israel May 17, 2020. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Israeli cabinet limited on Sunday the involvement of the Shin Bet security service in the cellphone-tracking of people infected by the coronavirus, saying the measure would be a last resort where epidemiological investigation proves insufficient.

Circumventing parliament in March, as the coronavirus spread, the cabinet approved emergency regulations that enabled the use of the technology, usually deployed for anti-terrorism. Privacy watchdog groups have challenged the practice in court.

Citing waning contagion rates in Israel, the cabinet amended regulations so that the phone tracking is warranted “in specific and special cases only, where location ... cannot be completed with epidemiological investigation using other methods”.

But, a cabinet statement said, the reduced scope of Shin Bet involvement could be reviewed if a coronavirus surge is feared.

Israel - with a population 9 million - has reported 16,712 coronavirus cases and 279 deaths. Schools and businesses have been reopening amid cautious optimism about health policies.

A parliamentary oversight panel and the cabinet have been conferring on legislation that would regulate the Shin Bet involvement.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Tova Cohen

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