Israel: a bill proposes alternatives to ISA tracing of Covid-19 patients

The Israeli government will be required to develop civilian contact-tracing technology, taking into account privacy-driven design from the outset, much like dozens of other countries around the world have done. The applications will be available for use on a voluntary basis, free of charge, and will be based on encrypted and anonymous data. These matters are proposed in a bill [Hebrew] drafted by a group of 15 Israeli privacy professionals from the academia, social sciences , technology and legal sectors. The bill was submitted to the Security and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Israeli Knesset (the Israeli parliament).

The bill was developed shortly after the Knesset enacted an interim law to re-authorize the Israeli Security Agency (ISA, colloquially called “Shabak”) to use cellular telecommunication network meta-data to track the whereabouts of Israelis diagnosed with COVID-19 and those they were in proximity to. The bill is designed to be a civilian alternative to the ISA’s monitoring measures. The bill was submitted to the Knesset’s committee that will deliberate over the upcoming weeks on a permanent measure to authorize the ISA to monitor individuals diagnosed with COIVD-19.

The bill’s explanatory notes indicate that civilian technologies offer good alternatives to the ISA’s monitoring. Unlike the ISA’s monitoring measures, these civilian technologies provide a quicker and more accurate detection of contacts, with a better protection of privacy.

Voluntary Basis

According to the bill, the solution will comprise of a smartphone app and dedicated hardware such as a bracelet or smart-card. These will enable to monitor the proximity of an individual diagnosed with COIVD-19 to other individuals, including within the Haredi (Ultra Religious) communities and other sectors that are less inclined to have or use smartphones.

The bill also proposes timescales to deploy the newly developed technology. The smartphone app will be distributed within 30 days of enactment. The dedicated hardware – for those who do not own a smartphone – will be distributed within 60 days thereafter. The bill also proposes that the government, with the approval of the Knesset’s Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, will prescribe thresholds that when reached, will automatically terminate the ISA’s involvement in combatting the Coronavirus pandemic. These metrics could be, for instance, the number of people that have adopted the alternative contact-tracing technology.

The bill proposes that these civilian alternatives will be used on a voluntary basis, similar to the “Shield” app – the national app to combat the Coronavirus – which the Ministry of Health developed around the beginning of the pandemic. The bill also proposes that the Minister of Health develop a national program to encourage the use of these alternatives, and appropriate funds to the program. The bill is technology-neutral and refrains from naming particular types of technologies that should be used to further the bill’s purpose. Nevertheless, the bill indicates that these technologies will be offered without charge to expand their proliferation, and in turn, their effectiveness and the protection they provide to citizens.

In order to minimize the invasion of privacy to no more than required, the bill prescribes principles for the operation of the civilian alternatives. Among others, it provides that these technologies will only be used subject to the individual’s informed consent and free-will. They will not collect or disseminate personally identifying information, the data they process will be encrypted and anonymous and will only be stored locally on the user’s device. The proximity-tracing data collected will automatically be deleted after 21 days.

Open Source

The technology will allow individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 to inform those they were in close contact with over the fourteen days preceding their diagnosis. The information shared will include the approximate timing of the contact, but without identifying the patient. No information will be transmitted from the app except on a clear and purposeful act of the user choosing to do so. In any event, no information will be shared with the government unless the user provides an informed consent to do so.

The bill proposes a number of measures to enhance public trust in these alternative technologies and ensure they are appropriately designed for privacy. The app’s source code will be publicly released under an open source license. The app’s terms of use will be concise, drafted clearly, and made available in all relevant languages. A supervisory committee headed by a retired judge whose members include privacy practitioners, attorneys and social science professionals will be established. The Minister of Health will be required to consult the supervisory committee before publishing the alternative technologies. The Ministry of Health will publish all raw data collected through these alternative technologies on its website, along with reports analyzing the data.

Finally, in order to deter against misuse of the data collected through these alternative technologies, the bill prescribes a number of offenses punishable by imprisonment and penalties. Among others, the bill proscribes using the data collected for any unauthorized purpose, and compelling an employee or other individual subject to a person’s authority to reveal information collected through these alternative technologies.

Effective Alternatives

“Developing civilian alternatives to the ISA’s measures for monitoring the whereabouts of COVID-19-diagnosed individuals and those they came in contact with is a national interest of paramount importance”, according to advocate Haim Ravia and Prof. Michael Birnhak who proposed the bill and are among the group of professionals behind it. “It is incontrovertible that the monitoring of citizens by the ISA, a counter-intelligence organization, is an extreme and ominous step that should be discontinued at once. The bill aims to compel the Israeli government to act through civilian avenues and provides measures to enhance public trust in the alternative technology and encourage its adoption and use. If Israel takes up this opportunity, it will join dozen of other countries who have similarly done so, the vast majority of which have very successfully been able to combat the pandemic”.

“Members of Knesset from the coalition and opposition parties are together united in their support of effective alternative technologies”, says Prof. Karin Nahon, who also is among those who proposed the bill. “The ISA also has reservations of it being empowered to handle an issue of truly civilian nature. This is an opportune moment to establish guidelines for the development and implementation of civilian alternatives”.