The Israel Defense Forces has said it will stop monitoring social media posts as part of its COVID-19 contact-tracing efforts, something many Israelis have found disturbing.
The Home Front Command’s Alon Task Force has been using information available on social media to check up on the plans of infected people to attend social gatherings in violation of government pandemic regulations.
The information was then shared with police.
The task force was granted authority to do so for the purpose of helping epidemiological researchers interview patients or those who came into contact with them.
“During the task force’s activity, publicly available information was collected from the internet in order to prevent outbreaks of disease and focus on preventive actions. It was passed on to the Israel Police in order to enforce the guidelines,” says Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman, head of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.
“After an examination that was conducted over the past few days, an instruction was given to stop this activity – and this was implemented immediately,” he Zilberman.
Army and police tracing activities have concentrated on finding infected people who break quarantine, and on locating social gatherings such as weddings, funerals, parties, large prayer gatherings, “raves” and other crowded events, where the coronavirus can easily spread.
Many Israelis have been concerned about military intervention in civilian affairs, specifically regarding privacy and civil rights.
“This is a civil and health matter, not a security issue, and the army should be not be conducting this operation,” says Prof. Michael Birnhack, associate dean for research at the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law.
“Civil[ian] tools rather than security-based tools should be used for contact tracing. Unfortunately, this is not clear to decision-makers. The military mindset is different from what is needed for a civilian health crisis,” he says.
Enforcement is vital, Birnhack says, “but this should done within civil[ian] means. The means need to fit the goals and be proportional.”
Assaf Agmon, a retired Air Force brigadier general and leading voice in public protests against the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says: “In principle, it would be an absolute disaster if the IDF were used against civilians, no matter the situation.”
According to an emotional Agmon, the army’s name says it all.
“It is the people’s army. It was set up by the country’s founders. No one, not [David] Ben-Gurion nor [Menachem] Begin and not [Yitzhak] Shamir ever used the army against the people,” he says, citing prime ministers from across the political spectrum.
But a Jerusalem lawyer who asked that her name not be used says contact tracing via social media was not necessarily a privacy issue because Facebook posts are usually public. But it is not always so tidy.
“If they [the military] were somehow getting into people’s pages and able to see their posts even though they had it set that only friends can see the posts, then it may very well be a privacy issue,” the lawyer says.
Asked about contact-tracing activities of the Israel Police, the force’s foreign media spokesperson, Supt. Micky Rosenfeld, says that it was making “active efforts” to ensure that the public follows government guidelines.
“It does not matter where or what [people] are doing, we are working to prevent large gatherings of any type,” Rosenfeld says.
This is not the first time that blurring the line between civilians and the military has upset Israelis. It also occurred in late September during a national lockdown, when anti-government protests were limited to within half a mile of one’s home and soldiers helped man checkpoints.
After two women were detained by the police for screaming at a soldier manning a Jerusalem checkpoint, the military ceased assisting law enforcement with protesters.
Following that incident, the IDF spokesperson said at a news briefing that sending soldiers to do policing tasks “isn’t the most effective way” to use them, and soldiers “should not carry out enforcement [actions] against [Israeli] civilians.”
Birnhack believes that once the military is out of the picture, the rules governing the collection of information will change.
“We are still a democratic country,” he says.
“Surveillance of events on social media is disproportional. We should not be treated as criminals. Being sick is not a crime."
Article written by Joshua Shuman. Reprinted with permission from The Media Line