Israel uses surveillance technology to try tackle Covid-19
Israel has made extensive use of surveillance technology to try tackle Covid-19, as countries around the world grapple with the trade-off between privacy and monitoring infection. Hirsh Kotkovsky thrusts his phone towards me but I can’t read the screen from 2m (6.6ft) away due to social distancing rules. We’re in the bomb shelter below his Jerusalem apartment block – the only place the photographer has been able to work since his studio closed in the lockdown.
“I was shocked,” he says as he reads out the message from the Israeli government. “It’s telling me that I was next to someone that has corona… and that I must go into quarantine.”
He obeyed the order that came in late March, cancelling lucrative wedding shoots and shutting himself away from his wife and four small children, even though he had no symptoms.
Mr Kotkovsky is one of thousands of Israelis who have been alerted by similar messages. In the fight to contain the coronavirus, Israel’s internal security agency – the Shin Bet – was empowered to use covert systems to track people’s movements.
The Shin Bet can access the location data of millions of mobile phone users to trace those who have been in proximity to confirmed patients. Israel credits the system, among other measures, with reducing the rate of infection.
The number of new cases reported each day is now down to double digits. Its death toll has also remained relatively low, currently standing at 252.
Many shops have reopened and some school classes have started up again. It has felt like the first wave of infection is passing.
“It is precisely now when we need this tool… to break the chain of contagion and permit the people to go on with their lives,” said National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat at a parliamentary oversight committee last week.
But the unprecedented expansion of the Shin Bet’s powers has been the subject of controversy, including a Supreme Court challenge, questions over its accuracy, and accusations from doctors that it creates a distraction from testing for the coronavirus.
The agency, now acting as a tool of public health enforcement, is usually tasked with preventing attacks against Israelis and routinely monitors Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Arik Brabbing slips his surgical mask under his chin and breathes in Tel Aviv’s warm air. He was better known during his three decades in the Shin Bet by his cover name “Harris”.
We sit at either end of a park bench as the former agent-handler describes how he rose to become chief of the spy agency’s cyber unit.
Now retired, he says counter-terrorism technology is hunting down people exposed to Covid-19.
“It’s the same system, the same methods,” he explains. “We know that someone was here in the park. We can get from the [phone] company all the details about the hour, the place, exactly the place… and we can understand who else was around.”
I ask him a series of questions – some get a response, others don’t.
Can people be monitored in real-time? “I cannot answer your question.”
How accurate is the geo-location data? “Accurate enough. It’s a very, very, very sensitive tool, ok? But I don’t want to add another word about the sensitivity,” he says, arguing that it could reveal capabilities to enemies.
Can agents log-in to security cameras to track patients? “No, No, No. It is against the law.” The Shin Bet “saved lives from terror, but it saves lives also from the corona,” he says.
The agency believes the system has located almost 4,000 individuals who later tested positive – around a quarter of the confirmed Covid-19 cases in Israel.
However, concerns have been raised about whether it is picking up too many people, including those who simply pass a patient in the street. Almost 79,000 people have been sent messages based on the Shin Bet data, the government says.
The Israel Association of Public Health Physicians told MPs that the programme raised “the substantial possibility of various errors”, saying that “close contact” meant a distance of less than 2m for more than 15 minutes.
Mr Brabbing said the system did measure the duration of contact.
With the lockdown eased, authorities are watching for signs of the virus’ resurgence
Others believe mass surveillance programmes scrambled to deal with the pandemic are rife for abuse around the world. “What scares me is that, at least for now, the norm is suddenly changing,” says cybersecurity analyst John Scott-Railton of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
“People who have been [quietly] doing these things which are highly questionable are suddenly saying: ‘Look, we’re your saviours here.'”
Meanwhile, police in Israel have enforced isolation orders partly drawing on the surveillance data. Since March, more than 110,000 checks have been carried out to confirm people are at home. In one case, officers flew a drone up to the window of an 18th floor flat to check on a coronavirus patient’s quarantine. She waved at the aircraft filming her.
Police used a drone to check on a high-rise coronavirus patient
Police spokesman Superintendent Micky Rosenfeld thinks the measures have kept Israel in a “relatively good position” in tackling the virus. “We didn’t reach a stage where we had hundreds of thousands of people in hospitals… but we’re keeping our heads up and we’re staying on top of the situation,” he says.
A committee of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, has been overseeing the Shin Bet program and authorising its continued use. Israel’s ministry of health told the BBC that it was continuing to use the data. It declined to answer a question about privacy concerns.
The Shin Bet has previously said individuals’ data will be used only for providing instructions to save lives, and will be deleted 60 days after the coronavirus emergency is lifted.
Ministers have pledged to underpin the programme with legislation after a Supreme Court challenge by human rights groups.
Mr Kotkovsky, the photographer who self-isolated after a government message, says he supports the system but still feels left in the shadows.
He doesn’t believe he actually came into contact with a coronavirus patient but was told he could not receive a test. “It didn’t feel like someone was crushing my privacy,” he says. “The problem was that I think it wasn’t accurate.”