March 19 (UPI) — The Israeli Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday for and against the government’s use of electronic surveillance to track and contain the coronavirus disease.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s government last weekend approved using the Shin Bet security service to conduct mass surveillance on Israelis’ cellphones as a measure to help stem the spread of the virus. Normally, such surveillance would require a court order.
The move allows agents to tap into GPS coordinates of cellphones in close proximity to known coronavirus carriers. The owners are identified and ordered to go into quarantine for 14 days.
The government said personal data gathered by the surveillance is seen by only a few health officials and will be destroyed within 60 days. Opponents argue it’s a violation of privacy, is unnecessary and extreme.
The high court on Tuesday declined to freeze the surveillance, but agreed to hold a hearing Thursday.
Surveillance began Tuesday without approval from the Knesset, Israel’s parliamentary body, because it’s not yet fully functioning. The new Knesset, elected in a national vote earlier this month, was just sworn in Monday.
The government said it decided not to wait, believing that doing so may have put lives in danger.
“This is indeed an extreme step that we have taken, and the decision followed a discussion lasting eight hours,” said Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan. “The data obtained will be destroyed [once it’s no longer needed] and the authorization for the program has only been granted for a short period of time.”
Lawsuits seeking to force Knesset approval were filed by privacy advocates and the Arab-dominated Joint List Party.
Wednesday, the body’s legal adviser said tracing the virus through cellphone surveillance is an “infringement of democracy.” The adviser’s office said the government must present legal justification for using the surveillance, but that can’t be done until the Knesset’s arrangement and defense committees are formed.