NOTE: I have compiled here the most comprehensive coverage of Israel’s response to the Coronavirus epidemic in terms of cyber-tools being used and their impact on human rights. A full list of my related posts is here. Please read and disseminate on social media platforms.
Israel’s interim defense minister, Naftali Bennett, has released a ministry plan for fighting Covid-19. Among its recommendations is one that offers yet another alarming violation of individual rights. The technology he’s promoting would develop a scorecard for every citizen and rate their likelihood of having or transmitting Coronavirus on a 1-10 scale. Bennett claims that the surge in the number of victims and hospitalizations has rendered it impossible to do proper investigation of the chain of transmission in order to detect who was in proximity to the victim and isolate them as well. He urges the adoption of a cyber tool created by the IDF which would pour all relevant data compiled by the ministry of health and Shabak (its massive database is called “The Tool“) into a database. The computer model would then assign a 1-10 score to each individual profiled. The score would indicate in real-time, moment-by-moment, the likelihood that s/he was infected. Those on the highest end of the spectrum would be “invited” for testing.
This, of course, is one of the cruxes of the process. What does an “invitation” mean? Is it mandatory? Advisory? What will the State do if the individual ignores or rejects the invitation? How will anyone measure the efficacy of this method? What would indicate success or failure? For example, if you compel 200,000 citizens to take a Coronavirus test and only 10 have the illness, is that benefit worth the burden placed on the rest of those caught up in the dragnet? Will force be used to compel compliance? Arrest? Fines? Forced quarantine? Lest you think these are academic questions–given Israel’s history of dismissal of such concerns in forming security and social policy, they are extremely relevant.
Unsurprisingly, Bennett recommends that the defense ministry develop this new technology in concert with the “civilian sector” so that it may be rolled out for use in the general population. Which company is prepared to partner with the IDF? If you guessed NSO Group, you win the company’s new cyberwar board game, “Pegasus!” Of course, a company which has flagrantly violated human rights around the world with its dirty-ops technology would want “in” on this new, highly lucrative product.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, NSO already has a database model it is testing in a dozen countries designed to input massive amounts of information to do something similar: to detect who is infected in a civilian population based on an artificial intelligence prediction model. This presumably is either a prototype that could add the new IDF program to its capability. Or the new product may already have this capability built into it.
There are a few ‘minor’ roadblocks to implementing the new IDF cyber tool. It would have to be approved by the relevant legal authorities. Due consideration would have to be given to implementing privacy protections. But given that this is a potentially lucrative security export product, that shouldn’t be a problem. Israel is never one to let legal niceties or petty issues like the right to privacy stand in the way of exporting human rights abuse around the world. The ease with which NSO exports Pegasus to repressive regimes is a case in point.
On a related subject, as an indication of the profound racism infecting Israel’s approach to the pandemic, Bennett has urged that a total lockdown be implemented on both Haredi and Palestinian communities in Israel. He even has the chutzpah to claim there are three Covid-19 “states” within Israel: secular Jews, Haredim and Palestinians. Because, he claims, the illness is raging out of control in two of these communities, they must be shut down in order to protect the “third state.” Congratulations are in order to the defense minister: he’s managed not only to espouse Arabophobia, but anti-Semitism in singling these populations for closure.
It is true that the Haredim have rather flagrantly violated quarantine provisions in performing religious prayer and rituals like weddings and funerals. But the reason for this is that the government has permitted the Haredim to live segregated from the rest of society. It has not compelled their educational system to integrate secular subjects and knowledge into school curriculum. Nor forced them to serve in the army or join the job market. It has permitted a group living within the State which rejects it wholly. It has not attempted to integrate Haredim into the wider society. And in this particular case, the authorities have not done enough to educate the Haredi spiritual leadership about how to protect their flock from this plague.
Thus the responsibility for the outbreak in the ultra-Orthodox community is not only an internal issue, but one of the failures of the secular government, including Bennett himself as a senior minister. Instead of blaming the victims for their own illness, he should be offering aid, comfort and public health education. Stigmatizing vulnerable populations as he has done is precisely the wrong approach during such a crisis.
As for Bennett’s racist attitude toward Israeli Palestinians, they too have not been integrated sufficiently into Israeli society. But not, as with the Haredim, of their own choosing. They, in fact, have been deliberately excluded from major sectors of the economy, education and health system. Of course, the epidemic will be raging in their towns: they are the poorest, the most likely to have little or no medical facilities or treatment available. They are the least likely to be socially connected to the wider country, and so less aware of protective social measures to take to protect themselves. Instead of addressing these fundamental failures of Israeli society, Bennett again blames the victim in a callous display of racism.