Israel’s High Court of Justice has ruled that a domestic spy agency must stop tracking coronavirus patients with tech it would otherwise use on terrorists – but only pending a law to legalize the practice.
In a ruling on Sunday, the court said that the government must discontinue its use of domestic intelligence service Shin Bet’s broad spying powers to track the cell phones of those infected, unless it comes up with at least a temporary order to codify the practice in the next few weeks, provided the legislative process kicks off by April 30.
“We must take every precaution to ensure that the extraordinary developments with which we are dealing these days do not put us on a slippery slope in which extraordinary and harmful tools are used without justification,” the court said, branding unchecked surveillance of Israeli citizens “a serious blow to the constitutional right to privacy,” which “should not be taken lightly.”
The ruling could potentially bring surveillance of coronavirus carriers (which was greenlit through an emergency order in March) to a halt if the government fails to come up with a draft in the coming days.
The court also sought to curb the scope of surveillance, saying that any future law must have an end date and make an exception for journalists, amid mounting concerns that having a spy agency tracking their movements undermines press freedom.
Journalists who test positive for the virus would have the right to opt out of the program within 24 hours of receiving the diagnosis by seeking a court injunction. The clause, aimed at protecting sources, would mean the journalists themselves will have to notify all of their contacts about their potential exposure to the coronavirus.
While the court formally sided with organizations that asked it to put the brakes on the spy agency’s rampant use of surveillance tech, it has still drawn criticism from advocacy groups for not banning the practice outright, but rather allowing the government to continue with it, albeit with minor tweaks.
“A Supreme Court decision that acknowledges this illegality but nevertheless allows it to continue severely harms the civil rights of all citizens,” Adalah, an Arab-run advocacy group and one of the petitioners, said.
The court’s decision did not sit well with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s government either, which reportedly mulled expanding the agency’s powers even further right before the court ruling cut those plans short later in the day.
Haaretz reported that the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s subcommittee on intelligence and secret services convened Sunday evening, discussing the broadening of surveillance and prolonging the terms of the emergency order. The closed meeting reportedly saw Netanyahu’s ally and cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz arguing that there is no viable civil alternative to Shin Bet. Commenting on the ruling, Steinitz blasted it as an “excessive and unnecessary intervention,” arguing that the order for the government to start the legislative process by Thursday creates an “almost impossible timetable.”