Omicron effect: Reintroduced Covid-19 spying challenged in court

Human rights groups in Israel have asked the supreme court to repeal the government’s decree reauthorizing the internal security service to spy on cell phones as part of a plan to stop the new Omicron Covid-19 variant.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, to use the phone-tracking technology initially developed for counter-terrorism purposes, as part of the measures announced Sunday aimed at preventing the new Omicron strain of the virus from spreading. Bennett also sealed Israel to all foreign travelers for 14 days.

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FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker takes a swab sample from a traveler at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel, October 13, 2021.
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Four human rights groups petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice on Monday, challenging Bennett’s decision as “ill-fated and illegal” and in violation of the court’s earlier ruling. 

“The High Court ruled in April 2020 that the Shin Bet cannot be authorized to implement contact tracing via Emergency regulations or government decision, but must convene the Knesset [Israel’s parliament] and advance legislation. Thus resuming the program via emergency regulation is a blatant disregard for the rule of law,” the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), one of the groups involved, said in a statement.

Furthermore, Shin Bet’s spying “violates the basic trust between the citizen and the government,” ACRI said. The program was first authorized in March 2020, under Covid-19 emergency measures, but the court ruled it “no longer justifiable” this March.

The surveillance technology matches the location of a person’s phone to others nearby to determine who may have come into close contact with a potential carrier of the virus. A Health Ministry official said on Sunday that its use would be “surgical” and target only confirmed or suspected carriers of Omicron.

Israel has two confirmed and ten more suspected cases of the new strain of the virus, first detected in southern Africa. While information about it is still limited, doctors in South Africa and Botswana have said it seemed significantly more transmissible than earlier variants, while causing only mild symptoms so far.

The supreme court has given Bennett until Tuesday to respond to the petition.

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