Anti-coronavirus phone surveillance techniques

By James Rothwell,

Middle East CorrespondentKnIsraeli authorities disinfect public transport in Jerusalem 
CREDIT: ANADOLU Good afternoon from Jerusalem,

This morning’s Daily Telegraph front page reports that the NHS is developing an app that will send alerts to people who have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Usage of the app will not be compulsory, but millions will be encouraged to download it as part of a collective effort to try and slow the spread of the virus.

This proposal will sound familiar to anyone following Israel’s approach to tackling the coronavirus, which over the past few weeks has leaned heavily on innovative technology and surveillance.

A few readers have asked me how the technology in Israel works, so I thought I’d use this week’s newsletter to dive into the process in some detail.

This week I was fortunate to have a conversation with a former Shin Bet officer, who explained to me how the security agency has used mobile phone data to track suspected carriers of the virus.

The Israeli model does offer some insight into how mobile phones can be used to identify and track the movements of virus carriers, with the goal of “flattening the curve” of the outbreak.

According to Arik Brabbing, a former officer with 27 years experience, the surveillance model has its roots in counter-terrorism operations, tracking suspected bombers.

“We prevented many terror attacks with the tools that are now dealing with this,” he says.

Mr Brabbing explained that, under the Israeli surveillance model, if a person goes to hospital feeling ill and tests positive then they hand over their phone number to doctors.

Shin Bet then retrospectively map out the movements of that infected person’s phone via GPS data from the past two to three weeks – did they go to the Knesset, for example, or another crowded area?

After gathering the data, they have a clear picture of who has come into close contact with the infected person, and those people are then sent messages urging them to get tested for the virus and go into quarantine.

Mr Brabbing stressed that Shin Bet do not have blanket powers over surveillance.

In other words, it seems there is no James Bond-style coronavirus control room where any citizen’s movements can be monitored at the whim of Shin Bet agents.

“The purpose is only to save lives,” he says.