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Cabinet votes to allow Israeli internal intelligence access to citizens' phone data in light of Omicron

The legislation is already being challenged in court

A woman on her phone as she arrives at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel, Nov. 28, 2021. (Photo: Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Israeli Cabinet has approved legislation that gives the country's internal intelligence agency the power to access Israels' phone data in order "to assist in the national effort to locate those infected with the Omicron strain."

The Cabinet voted today by telephone to approve the legislation that expands the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) powers. A previous law authorizing the ISA (or Shin Bet) to track phones expired this summer.

Already the legislation is being challenged in court.

Despite the law having expired, the Shin Bet has been tracking phones anyway since Sunday. During a committee meeting today to consider the legislation, Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri said he was approached to begin the tracking on Saturday.

"In a democratic state, the Shin Bet is not supposed to act against civilians at all, except in cases of terrorism, but every rule has an exception and that is the event we are in at the moment," he said. "The civilian authorities have yet to invent an alternative technology, and the situation is that we have no other way to save lives other than via use of this Shin Bet tool. Therefore, legal approval has been granted."

Knesset Member Meirav Ben-Ari called the tracking "draconian."

"What's the panic? We only have a few infections, so what's all the fuss about?" she asked. "To introduce such a law, which in my opinion is draconian, is not at all to my liking and I see no reason why in this day and age the Knesset needs to rush through such legislation."

The Public Health director of the Ministry of Health, Sharon Alroy-Preis, said tracking is an "important tool."

"During our own investigations, we reached 186 contacts while tracing the 13 people suspected of being infected with the variant - and thanks to the Shin Bet, another 42 were added," she said. "We see that this is a complementary and important tool."

"We are working specifically to prevent morbidity from the Omicron variant," Alroy-Preis added. "When the number of verified cases with the new strain exceeds a certain threshold and there is community-wide infection, there will no longer be any point in continuing to use this tool."

What we know so far of the current legislation was in this statement from the Prime Minister's Media Advisor: "The Cabinet, today, (Tuesday) 30.11.2021, has (in a telephone vote) approved draft legislation to authorize the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) to assist in the national effort to locate those infected with the Omicron strain."

Earlier this week, three fully vaccinated Israelis who returned from Malawi were found to have the Omicron strain of COVID-19, causing the Corona Cabinet to shut the borders to all foreigners for at least two weeks.

Omicron so far appears to be highly contagious albeit with mild symptoms, but the government is taking no chances with this strain.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the country has ordered 10 million PCR kits that can detect the new variant, will launch a pilot program to install air filters in classrooms and plans to expand sewage testing across the country "in order to detect morbidity even before the citizen is aware of it.”

Israel – which is offering booster shots to its entire population from 12 years old and up and requires a third shot six months after the first round for ages 16 and up to maintain a Green Passport – began its campaign to vaccinate 5- to 11-year-olds a week ago, just days before the emergence of the Omicron across the globe.

Nicole Jansezian is the news editor for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS

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