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Israel is using cellphone data to track the coronavirus

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The data will help identify citizens who should be quarantined

Elections In Israel Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Benjamin Netanyahu has authorized the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, to use cellphone location data to help combat the coronavirus. According to a New York Times report, the data will be used to retrace the movements of individuals who test positive for the virus, and identify others who should be quarantined.

The agency has permission to use the data, which the Shin Bet has collected from Israeli carriers since at least 2002, for the next 30 days. By directing individuals who may have come into contact with the virus to quarantine themselves immediately via text message, the government could greatly speed up the isolation process. The agency has not made public precisely what data it collects, but experts told the Times that the Israeli government can use it to track almost anyone’s location.

“We must preserve the balance between individual rights and general needs, and we are doing so,” Netanyahu said yesterday at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, where the plan was announced.

An anonymous security official told the Times that the data would be used narrowly, in a “focused, time-limited and limited activity.”

While this is the first high-profile instance of a government using cellphone tracking for public health purposes, such data has been used for advertising and law enforcement in many countries. Last year, Motherboard reported that AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint have sold customer location data to data sellers, who sold it to over 250 bounty hunters and related firms. The data included the phones’ assisted GPS data, which is intended to help first responders locate 911 callers, and can accurately pinpoint a user within a few meters.