By Maayan Lubell
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel plans to use anti-terrorism tracking technology and a partial shutdown of its economy to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday.
Cyber tech monitoring would be deployed to locate people who have been in contact with those carrying the virus, subject to cabinet approval, Netanyahu told a news conference in Jerusalem.
“We will very soon begin using technology … digital means that we have been using in order to fight terrorism,” Netanyahu said. He said he had requested Justice Ministry approval because such measures could infringe patients’ privacy.
In an escalation of precautionary measures, Netanyahu’s government announced that malls, hotels, restaurants and theaters will shut down from Sunday, and said employees should not go to their workplaces unless it was necessary.
However vital services, pharmacies, supermarkets and banks would continue to operate.
Health officials urged people to maintain social distancing, and not to gather more than 10 people in a room.
The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, confirmed that it was examining the use of its technological capabilities to fight coronavirus, at the request of Netanyahu and the Health Ministry.
Avner Pinchuk, a privacy expert with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said such capabilities could include real-time tracking of infected persons’ mobile phones to spot quarantine breaches and backtracking through meta-data to figure out where they had been and who they had contacted.
“I am troubled by this announcement. I understand that we are in unique circumstances, but this seems potentially like over-reach. Much will depend on how intrusive the new measures are,” said Pinchuk.
The Shin Bet, however, said in its statement that quarantine enforcement was not on the table. “There is no intention of using said technologies for enforcement or tracking in the context of isolation guidelines,” it said.
Netanyahu said it was not an easy choice to make and described the virus as an “invisible enemy that must be located.” He said Israel would follow similar methods used by Taiwan.
“In all my years as prime minister I have avoided using these means among the civilian public but there is no choice,” Netanyahu said.
The latest announcement follows a series of ever-stricter restrictions imposed by Israel to contain the virus.
The Israeli military said earlier on Saturday that it had ordered all troops to be back on their bases by Sunday morning, and that combat soldiers should prepare for a lengthy stay with no leave for up to a month.
Last week anyone entering Israel was ordered to self-isolate for two weeks and schools have been shut. Tens of thousands of Israelis are presently quarantined.
Israel’s Health Ministry said 193 people have tested positive, with no fatalities. Many had been on international flights in the past two weeks.
(Additional reporting by Tova Cohen, Dan Williams and Steven Scheer; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by William Maclean, Stephen Farrell, Daniel Wallis and Michael Perry)