Israel will use mobile data to track suspected Covid-19 cases

18 Mar 2020

The Israeli flag. Image: © vvita/

The emergency tracking measure has been described as a ‘dangerous precedent’ by an Israeli civil rights group.

On Tuesday (17 March), the Israeli government approved emergency measures related to the spread of Covid-19, which will enable Israeli security agencies to monitor and track the mobile phones of people suspected of being exposed to the virus.

The use of this tracking technology, usually reserved for counter-terrorism purposes, was unanimously approved by the Israeli cabinet on Tuesday morning. The monitoring will continue for the next 30 days.

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Civil rights groups in the country have described the move as a “dangerous precedent”. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the move could be “a slippery slope that must be approached and resolved after much debate and not after a brief discussion”.

Rolled out quickly

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the measures last weekend, suggesting that they could be used to notify people who might have come in contact with the coronavirus or to enforce quarantine orders.

According to the Guardian, the prime minister used emergency powers to bypass the typical process of approval by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, which could have delayed the roll-out of the technology.

Netanyahu said: “Israel is a democracy and we must maintain the balance between civil rights and the public’s needs. These tools will very much assist us in locating the sick and stopping the virus from spreading.”

Details of how the cyber-monitoring system will be used were scarce, but BBC reported that “it is understood the location data collected through telecommunications companies by Shin Bet, the domestic security agency, will be shared with health officials”.

According to Bing’s Covid-19 tracker, Israel had 427 confirmed Covid-19 cases as of today (18 March).

The use of location data around the world

According to the Washington Post, the US government is currently in active talks with tech companies to look at ways in which they could use location data from Americans’ phones to implement similar measures.

The publication highlighted that public health experts are interested in partnering with private-sector companies to compile anonymous, aggregated data to map the spread of the infection. The Washington Post said that the idea “could leave some Americans uncomfortable, depending on how it’s implemented”, due to the sensitivity associated with privacy and location data.

Google has said that it is working on its own database, using location data and insights it can derive from Google Maps in order to help US health authorities. Facebook also said that it is interested in understanding “patterns of people’s movements, which can be derived through the data the company collects from users who allow it”, according to the Washington Post.

The Guardian reported that similar measures involving tracking have been implemented in China, with some companies using facial recognition technology. According to the publication, the South Korean government used data to detail the movements of recently diagnosed people, with the goal of identifying new cases and those at risk.

The move ended up exposing anonymised “embarrassing personal information” in some cases, allowing people to “ascertain if others may have been involved in affairs or paying for sex, depending on their movements”.

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic