Earlier this week, Israel's Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement that the government was working on the last steps of regulatory approval for using a new software solution to track citizens and help enforce social distancing.
The country's Shin Bet is already using phone location data from cell towers along with card payment records to monitor people's movements and help officials act quickly to prevent large gatherings. However, the new software solution was developed with controversial security firm NSO Group, and takes things to a different level.
Image: Israel Times
Bennett refused to specifically name the firm, but local press seems to confirm that NSO made the software tool for Unit 8200 (equivalent to what NSA is in the US). The system assigns a rating from 1 to 10 for the likelyhood that a person may carry the virus by tracing their every step and analyzing whether they've been to a location where authorities found and confirmed one or more carriers of coronavirus.
If a person came into close proximity to a known carrier, they would get an 8 or a 9, while someone who has only been in the same general area as the carrier would get a 3, indicating that you're not that contagious. This would supposedly help predict where there's a high likelyhood for a new outbreak and give authorities ample time to make an educated decision.
Screenshot of NSO's tool
The tool can also be used to decide where to redirect medical resources like ventilators, which are in short supply even in the world's richest countries. Regions which are considered safe will see their quarantine lifted so the economic impact of the lockdown can be reduced as much as possible.
Unsurprisingly, the move caused some civil unrest and heated political commentary on the issue of giving up privacy to both the government and a private company that is known for manufacturing spyware that can be used on messaging and cloud services currently used by billions of people around the world.
There's also a real possibility for generating false-positive reports, and people in some communities are living low-tech lives, which means there are no devices to track. Some estimate that Israel could only realistically track 70 percent of its population.
NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio is confident that the firm is able to offer the necessary privacy protections, and the software tool does seem to make use of anonymized data. Hulio notes that there's no listening on phone calls, and while he expects the decision of Israel to track its people to generate concerns, he applauds it as a necessary means to save lives.