Middle East

Rights groups petition Israel's top court over Omicron phone tracking

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Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem November 3, 2021. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

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JERUSALEM, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Rights groups petitioned Israel's top court on Monday to repeal new COVID-19 measures that authorise the country's domestic intelligence service to use counter-terrorism phone tracking technology to contain the spread of the Omicron virus variant.

Announcing the emergency measures on Saturday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the phone tracking would be used to locate carriers of the new and potentially more contagious variant in order to curb its transmission to others.

Israeli rights groups say the emergency measures violate previous Supreme Court rulings over such surveillance, used on-and-off by the country's Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency since March, 2020.

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"Operation of the Secret Service to trace citizens violates the basic trust between the citizen and the government," the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), one of four groups who petitioned the court, said in a statement.

The Supreme Court gave the government until Tuesday to respond to the petition, ACRI said.

A senior health ministry official said on Sunday that use of phone tracking would be "surgical" in nature, only to be utilised on confirmed or suspected carriers of the variant.

The surveillance technology matches virus carriers' locations against other mobile phones nearby to determine with whom they have come into contact. Israel's Supreme Court this year limited the scope of its use after civil rights groups mounted challenges over privacy concerns.

Israel, which has banned almost all foreigners from entering the country over Omicron fears, has confirmed two cases of the new variant. Ten others are suspected of having contracted it.

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Reporting by Rami Ayyub, editing by Ed Osmond

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