Israel plans to use mobile data to retrace the steps of those infected with the novel coronavirus and identify others who should be quarantined because their paths crossed, according to a news report. The data was covertly gathered with the original intention of combating terrorism. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government would approve emergency regulations on 16 March that would allow the data to be used for a limited period of 30 days, with permission from the attorney general.
The existence of the data trove and the legislative framework under which it was generated and used had not previously been reported. The plan to use the data for public health reasons had not yet been debated by lawmakers or revealed to the public.
The idea is to sift through geolocation data routinely collected from Israeli mobile phone providers about their customers in Israel and the West Bank, find people who came into close contact with known virus carriers, and send them text messages directing them to isolate themselves immediately.
Disclosure of the plan raised alarm among privacy advocates. Anticipating the criticism, officials insisted that use of the data by the Internal Security Agency, or Shin Bet, would be scrupulously limited.
“The use of advanced Shin Bet technologies is intended for one purpose only: saving lives,” said a senior security official, who insisted on anonymity. “In this way, the spread of the virus in Israel can be narrowed, quickly and efficiently. This is a focused, time-limited and limited activity that is monitored by the government, the attorney general and the Knesset’s regulatory mechanisms.”
Extreme situations may require extreme measures. The global coronavirus pandemic certainly qualities as one of the most dramatic and challenging occurrences of our era. Therefore, the efforts of governments to take control quickly in order to curb deaths will likely involve methods not normally acceptable, especially in the democracies. And given that mobile network technologies are intimately intertwined with almost every aspect of modern life, they are bound to play a part in these initiatives.
Still, the Israeli government’s plan to repurpose data harvested from MNOs for national-security reasons is raising hackles among civil libertarians and other members of the Israeli public. This data trove could indeed be effective in tracking carriers of the coronavirus and isolating them before they infect others, but the fact that its very existence was never revealed until the present circumstances arose makes it problematic for the operators. They are in effect being made party to an invasion of their customers’ privacy, which potentially endangers the trust and loyalty inherent in the subscriber-operator relationship. This is not scrubbed metadata; the government authorities are aware of the identity of the users of the devices being tracked, which is essential to the plan. Furthermore, the fact that the data was originally collected for national security could itself cause resentment, especially because it was done without the public’s knowledge and presumably with the operators’ knowledge.
Israeli MNOs will likely have to do some degree of damage control over this situation. They would benefit from making clear to subscribers that they had little or no choice in matter, if such is the case. In any case, they could emphasize that this measure is being taken to save lives and that it is short-term. And if the measure does in fact save lives, the public image of the operators will benefit or at least not be harmed significantly. In extraordinary times, the subscriber base may well be willing to extend extraordinary tolerance to an invasion of their privacy.