Israel is tracking phone location data to fight COVID-19, reports say

The plan, announced Monday, was reportedly approved overnight.

An Israeli government security agency will reportedly track the location data of people with COVID-19 and those they may have exposed.
Angela Lang/CNET

Israeli government officials approved a plan to use cell phone data to track the locations of people infected with the novel coronavirus and those they might have had contact with, multiple news agencies reported Tuesday.

The tracking won't require a court order and records will be kept until the regulations expire, according to Israeli news source Haaretz. The regulation can be renewed, and the country's Health Ministry can keep the location records for 60 days after it expires.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly said on Monday that the government would approve the plan later that night. "We have to maintain the balance between the rights of the individual and needs of general society," he was quoted by The New York Times as saying, "and we are doing that."

The plan was reportedly approved by cabinet members without approval of the Knesset, the Israeli legislature, which was just sworn into office and has yet to convene. Netanyahu's office and the Shin Bet, the internal security force reportedly in charge of accessing the phone location data, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Shin Bet will use the data to inform people when they've been in contact with someone suspected of having COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The agency can also reportedly access the location data of people with the disease for up to two weeks before a diagnosis.

"The other state bodies don't have the necessary technological means to aid this effort," Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman said in a statement provided to The Associated Press. "I am well aware of the sensitivity of this matter and therefore have instructed that only a very limited number of agents will be handling this and the information will not be saved in the Shin Bet database."

The use of the data will be limited to as few people as possible, Israel Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit told Haaretz, adding, "Shin Bet security service is obligated to report all its activities to the attorney general, especially when the privacy of citizens may be compromised."