By mid-March 2020, Israel had experienced the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within a fortnight, confirmed coronavirus cases surged from half a dozen to 178 cases. In response to the challenge of identifying potential carriers, the government tasked the Israeli Security Agency (the ISA, or Shin Bet) with tracing the routes of confirmed coronavirus patients via cellphone location tracking and identifying individuals with whom the patients had been in close contact.
Israel's ISA communications metadata collection measures have been shrouded in veil of secrecy. The debate – in parliament and in court – regarding the use of the country's secret service counterterrorism mass surveillance measures to contain the spread of the pandemic is a rare opportunity to assess whether the institutional oversight mechanisms on SIGINT collection activities are sufficient and effective.
The paper will (1) describe the existing SIGINT oversight regime in Israel; (2) describe the SIGINT oversight ecosystem’s response to COVID-19 location tracking in Israel; and, (3) in light of existing literature, provide an analysis of that response.