Israel is tracking its coronavirus patients through their phones to make sure they obey strict quarantine policies

AP Photo/Oded BaliltyA man walking along a main street in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 15, 2020.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet approved new measures early Tuesday to allow its spy agency to tap into the cell phones of Israelis sick with coronavirus and monitor their movements.
  • Netanyahu first announced new surveillance initiatives in a televised address on Saturday night, stating that the “invasive” measures were needed for the country’s “war with an invisible enemy – the virus.”

  • The new surveillance regulation does not require Israel’s security agency – Shin Bet – to obtain a court order to track people’s phones and collect data, but calls for the data must be deleted after 30 days, Haaretz reported.
  • As of Monday, Israel has reported 298 coronavirus cases. It has a population of around 8 million people.
  • Israel has so far taken major steps to stop the spread of coronavirus, including ordering all citizens returning from overseas to self-isolate for two weeks.
  • Around 40,000 citizens have already self-quarantined as part of the new measures. Those who disobey may face arrest.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet approved new measures early on Tuesday to allow its spy agency to track citizens with the coronavirus through their cell phones to make sure they’re obeying strict quarantine rules.

Netanyahu announced he was allowing the Israel Security Agency, also known as Shin Bet, to tap into the patients’ cell phones to monitor their movements.

The new coronavirus, which causes a disease called COVID-19, has spread to over 110 countries and killed more than 7,000 people. As of Monday, Israel has reported 298 infections among its population of around 8 million people.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a speech at his Jerusalem office, regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020. Gali Tibbon/Pool via REUTERSReutersIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces the new coronavirus measures on Saturday night.

Netanyahu first announced new surveillance initiatives in a televised address on Saturday night, stating that the “invasive” measures would be part of the country’s new norm.

“We are at a war with an invisible enemy – the virus,” he said. “We’ll deploy measures we’ve only previously deployed against terrorists. Some of these will be invasive and infringe on the privacy of those affected. We must adopt a new routine.”

As part of his proposal, Netanyahu said Israel’s arsenal of advanced digital spying tools would be used to “locate the enemy” – meaning they would be used to track Israelis infected with the coronavirus.

The measure would, in theory, help determine if coronavirus-infected citizens came in contact with others and would make sure they were obeying quarantine laws.

“We are one of the few countries with this capability, and we will use it,” Netanyahu said. “We must do everything, as a government and as citizens, to not become infected and not to infect others.”

Netanyahu stressed that the new measures “would not be simple,” and said they will be imposed “in the next few days.” He also recommended that citizens maintain a two-metre (6.5-feet) distance from one another in order to curb the spread of airborne illness.

Health Ministry inspectors speak with a woman who is in self quarantine as a precaution against coronavirus spread in Hadera, Israel March 16, 2020 REUTERS/Ronen ZvulunReutersHealth Ministry inspectors speak with a woman who is in self quarantine as a precaution against coronavirus spread in Hadera

Israel has already employed strict measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, including shutting down most schools, ordering all Israelis returning from overseas to self-isolate for two weeks, and closing all malls, hotels, cafes, restaurants, and theatres.

The country has also limited all public gatherings to ten people.

Around 40,000 citizens have also self-quarantined, and must report themselves to the Health Ministry. Those who disobey may face arrest.

Israel coronavirusAP Photo/Tsafrir AbayovElectoral officials count ballots cast by Israelis under home quarantine on March 4, 2020.

Though Israel’s Justice Ministry’s called for the measures to go through a vote in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Netanyahu’s cabinet unanimously approved the measures on Tuesday morning.

According to Haaretz, the new regulation says that there will be no need to obtain a court order to track people’s phones and collect data. It also states that all data collected must be deleted after 30 days.

Though Israel has been praised for taking drastic steps to curb the coronavirus spread, the new surveillance measures were met with criticism from experts who say the move would be a serious invasion of privacy.

“This is a disturbing step,” Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, told Foreign Policy.

She warned that Israel risked moving towards a “surveillance democracy,” similar to steps taken by the US after the September 11, 2001 attacks where it amped up surveillance measures, including domestic warrantless wiretapping.

“It’s absolutely a 9/11 moment,” Shwartz Altshuler said. “We all know what happened afterward.”

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