Comptroller: End Shin Bet surveillance of corona-infected citizens

Written by on October 26, 2020

Comes out against PM stance, but carefully • agency violated privacy in four cases

Israel Police prepare for new coronavirus lockdown regulations, Sept. 25, 2020 (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

Israel Police prepare for new coronavirus lockdown regulations, Sept. 25, 2020

(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman on Monday recommended that the government end surveillance of coronavirus infected citizens by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), taking a position which could thrust him into controversy with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the same time, Englman carefully avoided challenging Netanyahu directly, instead phrasing his conclusions in terms of “considering the issue” as opposed to an unequivocal insistence on immediately ending the program.

Further, Englman avoided going after Netanyahu personally, instead suggesting that the decision was in the hands of Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.

Also, the report, which focused on the July-August period, discussed the National Security Council having a role in these issues.

Avoiding naming Netanyahu on the issue will strain credulity for many since the prime minister was the one who famously slammed his hand on the table, insisting on a return to Shin Bet surveillance in June after a three-week break and despite opposition from Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman himself.

Since taking office in July 2019, Englman has been said to be too close to Netanyahu, though he has denied the charge.

More specifically, the report said that “it is recommended that all those involved in the matter, and in particular including the committee of ministers presided over by the Intelligence Minister and the Health Minister, should take into account the limited effectiveness of the activities of the Shin Bet in its support of the Health Ministry.”

To the extent that the government insists on continuing Shin Bet surveillance, the report said that the agency and the ministries involved must be more candid with each other about the Shin Bet’s limits and about improving how the surveillance is used.

In terms of limited effectiveness, the report noted that for the time period it analyzed, only between 3% and 7% of those sent to quarantine due to Shin Bet surveillance methods actually contracted corona.

This was in contrast to 24% of those sent to quarantine by epidemiological investigations.

Put simply, the Shin Bet sent between three to eight times as many people into quarantine unnecessarily as compared to epidemiological investigations.

FURTHER, while the comptroller said that the Shin Bet’s record is impressive in the sense that it located 30% of corona-infected citizens beyond what epidemiological studies could locate, he said that it still fell far short of being able to fully track infection trends. On a related note, the comptroller said that the agency believes its improvement on epidemiological tracking of non-family members reaches 40%-60% of those infected.

Moreover, Englman stated that the Shin Bet’s primary anti-terror mission itself had been negatively impacted by the distraction of having to reassign personnel and resources from counterterror to corona-tracking.

Likewise, he said there are risks that the publication and running discussion about the Shin Bet’s tracking tool could reduce its future effectiveness in fighting terror, if terrorists learn about how it works and its weaknesses.

The report also flagged the violation of citizens’ privacy which has been part of the surveillance.

For the first time, the report stated that there have been four concrete cases where an individual’s private information was accessed improperly, despite safeguards put in place to prevent this.

Rather than investing so much in the Shin Bet surveillance, the report recommends investing more energies and resources in epidemiological surveys, which it said are superior in some ways to the agency’s review.

Next, Englman said that the Health Ministry should revise the language it uses to inform citizens that they need to quarantine and provide more specific information about the who and the how in terms of their contact with a corona-infected person.

In general, the comptroller encouraged more investment in the Magen voluntary tracking cell phone application.

He wrote that as of August 6, around 900,000 people had downloaded the application.

However, he added that sometimes a major increase in July-August of users could be nearly immediately followed by a major decrease, with new users finding the application not user-friendly enough or disappointed in some other technical issue.

THE SHIN BET responded that it had only taken on the corona surveillance mission upon being drafted to do so by the government and that the comptroller’s data was outdated.

Referring to a Health Ministry report from Sunday, the agency said that 35.8% of infected persons, equaling 59,326 people, were located solely because of the surveillance program.

Further, the Shin Bet said that the ministry’s report found that around 40,546 additional infections, 860 additional serious illnesses and 304 deaths were likely prevented by the surveillance.

The security service disputed the comptroller’s conclusion about epidemiological investigations, saying its electronic tool was superior and located potentially infected people at such speed that sometimes a parallel epidemiological probe might not have even been started.

Responding to the four cases where personal data was mishandled, the agency said that the fact that there were only four cases out of hundreds of thousands of checks – and that even these four cases did not lead to any concrete harm – showed the Shin Bet’s commitment to staying within the law.

Moreover, the agency said that all four cases occurred months ago and at much earlier stages regarding technological kinks which have since been fixed.

In addition, it said that improvements in the surveillance process were leading to reduced unnecessary quarantines.

Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen responded to the report, complimenting the Shin Bet for helping the country combat the coronavirus even though such a duty “is not at the heart of its standard work.”

Cohen highlighted the positive 30% of infected persons and around 300 lives saved by the agency.

He added that avoiding additional infections and deaths had also saved the economy from additional harm.

Furthermore, he noted that all of the ministers on the intelligence subcommittee had supported the Shin Bet’s role in combating corona infections.

Finally, he said that the security service had worked hard to safeguard privacy rights and was constantly working on improving these safeguards and the accuracy of the surveillance in general.  

The Health Ministry had not responded by press time and the comptroller’s office had not responded to inquiries relating to avoiding laying blame on Netanyahu.

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