The High Court of Justice on Monday ordered the government to severely limit the use of the Shin Bet spy technology to track confirmed coronavirus carriers as the pandemic begins to slow.
Israel has used the practice of tracking confirmed COVID-19 patients since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in Israel, insisting it's a necessary measure to keep track of the spread of infection. Rights groups, meanwhile, argued the measure is unconstitutional and blatantly violates the citizens' civil rights.
A seven-strong judges panel instructed the state to utilize the security agency's tracing tools only after March 14 - once the economy fully reopens - and only in cases where the patient refuses to cooperate with authorities during an epidemiological investigation.
The judges also ruled that the government’s use of such surveillance tools "creates a serious, exceptional and draconian violation of the right to privacy and the democratic fabric of life in Israel."
“The damage described is made worse when taking into account the use of Shin Bet's tracking tech has been in use since last March (except for a short hiatus during the summer). When contact tracking is used for such a prolonged period, it is no longer an unusual and short-term event, but a worrying practice,” the judges stated in their ruling.
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut noted in the ruling that the use of such measures - which were developed to combat enemies of the state - on civilians should "wipe the sleep off the eyes of any supporter of democracy.”
Justice Hanan Melcer added the use of Shin Bet’s tracking tools has diminished is no longer justified due to Israel’s vaccination campaign success, the Shin Bet’s own preference to limit tracking of civilians and the number of mistakes in tracking that sent Israelis who had never been in contact with a carrier into forced self-isolation.
Melcer added the country's representatives have admitted that Israel was the only democratic state to use such measures.
Justice Yitzhak Amit criticized the government for using such a powerful and confidential tool, meant to ensure public security, in such a reckless manner that its existence was exposed to the world, including Israel’s enemies.
“With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the basement door of the Shin Bet opened and the country’s sophisticated and powerful track and trace system was revealed,” Amit wrote.
“Until that, few knew about the system, since the Shin Bet used it wisely and cautiously as part of its efforts to thwart terrorism and for security purposes only. The exposure of Shin Bet tools and capabilities, as well as its limitations, may harm its activities at the expense of public safety in the future.
“No other democracy has used the capabilities of its own security agencies to track civilians, even during the coronavirus crisis,” added Amit.
In a previous petition filed against the government's use of the Shin Bet tracking technology, the High Court ruled that the government cannot continue to utilize the Shin Bet without passing a law on the matter and therefore must find civilian alternatives.
Following the ruling, the government ceased to utilize the Shin Bet, due in part to pressure from the Shin Bet chief, but later passed a law to allow it to track civilians via the security service when the number of infected surged.