Interfor’s Tracking of COVID-19

Privacy and the Tracking of COVID-19

We are a few months into the most significant event to impact the globe since WWII. Nothing else has impacted every aspect of the lives of so many around the world, with half of humanity under lockdown. It is truly telling that democracies have dealt with the virus with transparency and leaders providing daily updates while dictatorships have not taken responsibility and instituted further restrictions on their citizens’ limited rights.

All Western democratic countries are dealing with the fine line between enforcing strict distancing measures and allowing citizens some liberty to exercise free will. Several countries such as Israel, accustomed to security situations through threats of violence and terrorism, have accepted that their security forces will carry out some of the quarantine measures. This has not been without controversy, as Israel has a vocal majority which protects civil liberties and the rights of minorities. Israel’s tech-driven security approach to containing COVID-19 may offer clues for other developed countries.  

Tracking cell phones

The Shin Bet, or “Shabak,” Israel’s version of the FBI, has, with the help of the IDF, created a security blanket over places such as the West Bank, including facial recognition technology, drones, and cameras, all powered by artificial intelligence algorithms. This has created a need for fewer security forces so suspects can be tracked from social media footprints. With this same technology, the Shin Bet aids the Israeli government in tracking those suspected of COVID-19 infection and those breaking curfew.

The optimal way to keep tabs on persons violating quarantine is by tracking their smartphones. According to this BBC article “details of how the “cyber-monitoring” will work were not disclosed but it is understood the location data collected through telecommunication companies by Shin Bet, the domestic security agency, will be shared with health officials. Once an individual is highlighted as a possible coronavirus case, the health ministry will then be able to track whether or not they are adhering to quarantine rules.”

While the Israeli population accepts this technology is for personal safety, concerns are raised. China aggressively employed this type of technology in stopping the spread of the coronavirus. The regime used many of those practices in its oppression of the Uigher Muslim population in northwest China. Iran has a similar story. The Islamic State regime released an app which claimed to track the virus but allowed authorities to know a phone user’s whereabouts. Israel acts in no way like its authoritarian Middle Eastern neighbors, but it is the only democracy (as of now) parlaying intelligence forces at such a scale. We could imagine the protests from both sides of the aisle if the NSA decided to track all American’s cellphones to determine quarantine violations. True, overseeing 8 million Israelis is easier than 327 million Americans, but the Chinese were able to keep tabs on almost everyone.

An example of how this works

The Shin Bet’s practice of tracking cell phones allows them to see when people are congregating and violating rules, thus prompting the security services to go into the field and arrest them. As the Shin Bet stated, “without quickly finding them and putting them into quarantine, they surely would have unknowingly infected many more people.” A recent case involved an ultra-Orthodox Jew who tested positive for the virus but boarded a bus to his hometown of Haifa. Security services sprang into action, stopped the bus and arrested him. This individual knowingly put fellow passengers at risk.

While the full scope of how much information Israel’s security and intelligence agencies are using is unknown, this strategy will continue as crucial in the fight against COVID-19. So far, the Israeli government has been effective, given the circumstances (despite some populations flippantly ignoring all rules to stop the spread), but time will tell if this strategy is ultimately effective.    

It is doubtful we will return to what was considered “normal,” but there will be a “new normal.” The emerging challenge for democracies fighting future pandemics is determining the fine line between public safety and security while maintaining civil liberties. In some places, such as Latin America and Eastern Europe, this challenge may be more pronounced. Citizens fearful of the spread of viruses may opt-in for monitoring and security, voluntarily ceding some basic civil liberties.