Israel to track mobile phones of suspected coronavirus cases | World news | The Guardian


Israel’s government has approved emergency measures to track people suspected or confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus by monitoring their mobile phones, immediately raising privacy concerns in the country.

The cabinet unanimously approved the use of the technology – developed initially for counterterrorism purposes – in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, first raised the issue during the weekend. He said authorities would use the data to notify people who may have come into contact with someone infected with the virus, and also to enforce quarantine orders.

How can I protect myself from the coronavirus outbreak?

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided it is used correctly.

Many countries are now enforcing or recommending curfews or lockdowns. In the UK any household where a person develops a fever or a new continuous cough are recommended to self-isolate for 14 days.

In a televised speech on Monday evening, Netanyahu said the cyber-monitoring would be in effect for 30 days.

“Israel is a democracy and we must maintain the balance between civil rights and the public’s needs,” Netanyahu said. “These tools will very much assist us in locating the sick and stopping the virus from spreading.”

Using emergency powers, he bypassed what would typically be a process of approval by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. It had looked likely a parliamentary subcommittee would have delayed the rollout.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said providing the country’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, with new secretive powers was a “dangerous precedent and a slippery slope that must be approached and resolved after much debate and not after a brief discussion”.

Several countries have used technology to digitally track the virus’ spread, although with different degrees of invasiveness. Iran has been accused of asking people to download an app alleging to help identify the coronavirus symptoms, but instead it collected location data.

China expanded its already-intense mass surveillance, with telecom operators tracking people’s movements while companies have rolled out facial recognition technology.

In South Korea, the government sent messages out to the public that detail the movements of people who have recently been diagnosed with the virus. They were intended to help identify new cases and those at risk, but have often served to expose embarrassing personal information. While the texts do not give names, they share gender and age details. In some cases, amateur sleuths have be able to ascertain if others may have been involved in affairs or paying for sex, depending on their movements.

In Israel, Netanyahu’s authority to implement such measures has also been questioned. The country is battling the coronavirus while also under an extending political crisis, with Netanyahu ruling as interim leader. His opponent, Benny Gantz, is currently prime minister-designate and attempting to form a government, although it is unclear if enough lawmakers will back him.

With 300 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, Israel has shut down much of the country, including hotels, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and shopping centres. All international arrivals need to self-isolate for two weeks.

On Monday evening, Netanyahu also announced he would put most the country’s public sector workforce on a one-month leave and reduce private-sector employee attendance to 30%.

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