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Throughout the COVID-19 global outbreak, Israel has taken a unique approach for fighting the pandemic. While other countries have developed and implemented new technologies for contact tracing, Israel preferred using a covert technology, operated by the General Secret Service for anti-terror purposes.

During the first stages of the outbreak, the government established the use of the so-called “tool” through emergency regulations and then in governmental resolutions. However, on April 26, in four petitions filed against the resolutions, the Supreme Court ruled that the government will need to amend the law through a parliamentary legislative process to continue using this measure.

On June 24, while facing a potential nationwide second outbreak, the government laid down the bill. Titled (our informal translation) Interim Bill to Authorize the General Secret Service to Aid in the National Effort to Reduce the Spread of the Corona Virus, 2020, the bill sets out the procedures and controls for the continued use of the GSS measure.

Evidently, the government has put a great deal of thought into easing concerns over mass surveillance, lack of transparency and a potentially slippery slope in using covert technologies for civil purposes.

The bill and its explanatory notes use the terms “privacy,” “secrecy” and “sensitivity,” 12, 13 and 12 times respectively.  

Still, question marks remain. The Israeli government insists that currently there are no available alternatives. Conversely, many countries have already implemented voluntary, decentralized, non-location-based, transparent civil solutions. Governments embraced and promoted these types of solutions, as evident, for example, in the recent EU Commission Communication on two years to the GDPR application and in Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s description of the new contact-tracing application.

Procedure sequence under the bill

The bill sets out a detailed process, comprised of five substantial steps.

Step 1: The government will need to publish a declaration, authorizing the use of the GSS technology for COVID-19 contact tracing. The declaration will be valid for 21 days and could be extended or revoked.

Step 2: The Ministry of Health will issue the GSS with specific support requests to conduct epidemiological investigations and identify individuals who were in contact with a person found positive of COVID-19.

Step 3: The GSS will provide the Ministry of Health with limited necessary information.

Step 4: The Ministry of Health will order the identified individuals to isolate themselves. The recipients of the messages will have a right to appeal the order.

Step 5: The GSS will retain the data for 14 days and delete it thereafter. The Ministry of Health may keep the data for up to an additional 60 days for research purposes.

Controls under the bill

The government has received multiple position papers with comments and recommendations to amend the previously published notice of proposed legislation. The current version of the bill includes extensive measures and controls aimed at limiting the use of the GSS technology and minimizing the risks involved in such use. Substantial controls include:

No mass monitoring

At this time, the government declaration will authorize the GSS to provide support in specific cases only. However, mass-population monitoring may be used upon an imminent threat for a wide-scale outbreak.

Privacy-by-design considerations

The procedures related to the use of the GSS technology include data minimization, limited retention, limited duration of the law (three months), limited and specific use of the GSS technology, security and confidentiality controls, and, transparency through provision of details to the individuals identified in the investigations.

Access management

Only specific designated personnel will have access to the information.

Data segregation

The secret services will keep the information on their servers only and separate from any other data.

Ongoing review

A special committee of ministers will continue to review alternatives and will decide if there is a need to continue using the GSS technology.

Inadmissibility

Information used under the bill will be inadmissible in court.

Oversight

The GSS and the Ministry of Health will submit biweekly reports to a special parliamentary committee and weekly reports to the attorney general.

Criminal offense

Unauthorized use or disclosure of information is a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years imprisonment.

Question marks

Evidently, the government has laid down a detailed procedure with multiple controls to avoid unnecessary harm to individuals’ privacy and dignity. However, the need for a bill that would establish the use of covert surveillance-based technology to support non-national security purposes is still unclear, as the Israeli government does not release any documentation about its search for civil alternatives.

So far, the Ministry of Health failed to promote the use of the ministry-issued “privacy-first,” highly secured and decentralized Magen ("Shield" in Hebrew) contact-tracing app. Currently, the Ministry of Health is developing a second version of the Magen app with enhanced capabilities. It is unclear whether the launch of the new app will render the use of the GSS redundant.

Looking forward

The bill has passed the first reading by the main plenary of the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) and will be reviewed by the Foreign Affairs and Security parliamentary committee. The public, including privacy advocacy groups, will be able to submit position papers to the committee and participate in the discussion.

On June 29, the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of the Knesset held a hearing about the bill. Coalition members of the committee and representatives of the Ministry of Health and Justice Ministry expressed support in the bill. Opposition members and representatives from non-governmental organizations, and the Privacy Protection Council (represented by the author, who is a member of the council) expressed their concerns and objection to the bill.

The committee is likely to hold additional hearings, before approving bill, most likely with certain amendments, and forwarding the bill back to the main plenary for a second and third reading to complete the legislative process.

The bill is likely to go through an expedited legislation process and will become effective within the next coming weeks.

The full text of the bill is available in Hebrew.

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash


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