“All means will be used to fight the spread of the coronavirus,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on March 14, “including technological means, digital means, and other means that until today I have refrained from using among the civilian population.” As Haaretz reported, this means Israel will now unleash cyber tech “usually used for counter-terror” to enforce quarantines and to check the movements of people testing positive for the virus.
Following the announcement, the country’s Attorney General “approved the use of cyber measures to track patients’ phones,” essentially green-lighting Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, to actively track citizens by geolocating their cellphones and, one can assume, to build a database of where and when. The same intel can also be used to determine who else was in the vicinity of a known patient on a timeline, establishing potential infections, although such measures were not spelled out in any of the announcements today.
And, just like, that Israel joins Iran and China in the deployment of state-level intel gathering tools to track its population as it tries to prevent its coronavirus outbreak from getting out of control. Geolocating phones is a simple tech—in tandem with the carriers, the granularity can be pretty precise in urban locations. The fact this is being presented as a counter-terror intel tool suggests it is more than just a basic policing-level solution, more than just simple geofencing.
One can also assume there will be other forms of digital surveillance now brought into the mix as well. If you want to unleash intel tools to track a watchlist of people, and to use multi-faceted data analytics to establish infection patterns, you have plenty of options. “This is an effective tool to locate the virus and isolate it,” Netanyahu explained, “instead of isolating an entire country.”
As if to confirm the potential for such pattern matching, building a dataset of connected individuals based on their phones, Haaretz reports that a Shin Bet official denied the capability would be used to monitor patients in isolation “but did not refer to people who may have been in contact with known patients.”
Somewhat ironically given the politics, the other country recently in the frame for using smartphones to track citizens is Iran. On March 7, Iranian researcher Nariman Gharib outed the government for pushing citizens to download an app which it said would help diagnose coronavirus. Instead, the app registered the device, collecting contact and location details. One can assume full-scale tracking functionality to be somewhere within its architecture.
Google removed the app from the Play Store on March 9, and then a day later Gharib tweeted that the Iranian Ministry of Health had disavowed the app, blaming the Ministry of ICT for its development, assuring that no privacy lines were being crossed. The population of Iran was immediately reassured.
Avast’s Nikolaos Chrysaidos confirmed Gharib’s analysis of the app in a blogpost. “In addition to the user’s precise locations, the app also sends information entered by the user including their mobile number, gender, name, height, and weight, back to the developer’s server.” Chrysaidos also disclosed that “clues found in the code reveal that the app was developed by the same group that developed messaging apps Talagram and Hotgram—both reportedly developed for the Iranian government, who promoted the use of the messenger apps as an alternative to Telegram.”
One cannot talk coronavirus surveillance without heading back to the source. No country is doing more electronic surveillance as part of its coronavirus defense than China. Phone tracking is just one measure, to which you can add facial recognition and even drones to monitor sections of the population. China has also pushed its citizens into installing software onto smartphones “dictating whether they should be quarantined or allowed into subways, malls and other public spaces.”
We should get used to this. While it might appear draconian and uncomfortable for democracies to be turning outward-facing intel tools onto law-abiding citizens, almost every aspect of this global pandemic pushes us into unfamiliar territory. Enforced isolation, stores and venues shut down, borders and airports closed, flights banned, sporting events cancelled.
It is unsurprising, even inevitable that such measures will extend to other countries and for other purposes. It is not unreasonable to assume that you can expect some forms of this tech to be coming to a place near you at some point fairly soon—if it’s not being used already, of course.