A mobile phone displays an application that tracks the movements of people infected with Covid-19. To track coronaviruses, Israel is about to exploit the private data caches of mobile phones.

The Israeli government, facing a resurgence of coronavirus infections, has moved to assert unprecedented domestic surveillance powers, raising fears that individual tracking could be the new normal.

“This is how democracy is destroyed,” warned Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the left-wing Meretz party after an Israeli court authorized vast new surveillance powers for the internal security apparatus, the Shin Bet.

The Israeli government is “providing the [Shin Bet] with the power to enter hundreds of thousands of cellphones, essentially all of them,” Horowitz tweeted, warning that the law was extremely problematic.

Since mid-March, the Shin Bet has been conducting epidemiological investigations of Israeli citizens and providing the routes of carriers and the identity of individuals with whom they have come into contact.

The courts had only approved the use of the measure temporarily in lieu of legislation facilitating it.

On July 1, a law authorizing this surveillance was put on the books.

The emergency bill allowing for these measures is notably designed to avoid oversight by the coronavirus committee or other relevant panels. The rules can only be modified or rescinded through a Knesset majority, an unlikely eventuality as the government controls a significant majority within the parliamentary chamber.

Home to roost

The deployment of surveillance technology to track Israeli citizens can be viewed as the country’s most famous export coming home to roost.

Israel’s high-tech sector has in recent years gained global notoriety for its tracking apps, surveillance technology, and spyware. Some of the top global apps based on tracking individuals and their surroundings are Israeli.

Controversially, companies like NSO have become go-to suppliers for the authoritarian governments of countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The company’s Pegasus spyware is believed to have been used to track Gulf dissidents around the world, including colleagues of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

More mundane applications include Israel’s Waze, which tracks traffic congestion, allowing drivers to reach destinations faster. Another app, Gett, pairs customers up with nearby taxis through their phone.

This penchant for technology alongside the Israeli obsession with security has also led to the development of high-tech methods to bolster the occupation in the West Bank.

Israeli security services have often used tracking software to spy on Palestinians, often using compromising data on sexual or financial improprieties to pressure them into working as assets for Israel.

Tracking the routes of infection is no doubt a useful measure in virus containment. But surveillance implications will remain well after the virus is eradicated.

As a general rule, once a government is granted the authority to track large numbers of citizens through their cellphones, an important precedent is set. In this case, citizens who are not suspected of committing any crimes and have not given their consent.

The government’s new surveillance powers come with a three-week limit, but that time period can be renewed.

The emergency bill allowing for these measures is notably designed to avoid oversight by the coronavirus committee or other relevant panels. The rules can only be modified or rescinded through a Knesset majority, an unlikely eventuality as the government controls a significant majority within the parliamentary chamber.

Avoiding oversight

Israel’s Shin Bet assumes its new powers as the country struggles to contain a resurgence of Covid-19 cases.

The country’s overall numbers, standing at over 30,000 infected and 334 dead, are not exceedingly high. But with close to 1,000 new cases detected a day, the second wave in Israel is one of the most severe in the world in terms of per-capita growth.

It has become clear that the policy of easing up on restrictions had to be reconsidered. Israel is now “a step away from a full lockdown” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet during a special meeting earlier this week.

Among new measures sought are the shuttering of public gathering places, which had been reopened when the impacts of the virus seemed to have been lessening. Large event halls, museums and galleries, swimming pools, gyms and all nightlife will be shut down.

Fines for appearing in public without a mask have been more than doubled from 200 Shekels to 500 (close to US$150). Enforcement will also be expanded from the police to a specially trained cadre of municipal inspectors.

“The government is conducting itself in a crazy manner, and the flood of emergency regulations creates chaos,” Karin Elharrar of the opposition Yesh Atid party said.

Raising the fine to $150 during an economic crisis will not increase enforcement, Atid warned, “it will increase suicides.”

Security over rights

Until recently, Netanyahu received high marks for dealing with Covid-19 as the virus was seemingly contained. But the new surge in cases after what some saw as an irresponsible reopening is taking its toll on the prime minister’s standing.

So are the notable exceptions being made for Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies.

Even as the vast majority of public gathering places are to be closed, synagogues and centers of religious Jewish learning are to remain open after a rearguard struggle in the cabinet.

Moshe Gafni, chairman of the Knesset’s Finance Committee and an influential member of the United Torah Judaism party, said synagogue closures would force him to turn to his party’s rabbinic leadership and “advise them not to be partners in such a government.”

Following this threat, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party helped broker a compromise to limit attendance at synagogues and yeshivas, but averted their closure.

This comes despite dramatic rates of infection in ultraorthodox communities and in related religious institutions. In recent days, 200 students from the Beit Matityahu Yeshiva in the town of Bnei Brak were diagnosed with Covid-19. The predominantly ultra-Orthodox town has been the most hard-hit community in Israel.

The inability of the government to enforce measures on the ultra-Orthodox community is seen by some as a sign of both ineptitude and political corruption at the expense of public health.

Support for Bibi’s pandemic policies now stands at 46%, compared to 58% a week ago, and 74% a month before that, according to the most recent Channel 12 News poll.

As other world leaders are discovering, spin and public relations are not particularly useful in the face of the sheer numbers of those infected and the economic toll of this unprecedented epidemic. Israel’s emergency government, established to deal with Covid-19, is now struggling to fulfill its most critical purpose.