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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a speech at his Jerusalem office, regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the coronavirus, March 14, 2020.

POOL New/AFP/Getty Images

In its bid to contend with coronavirus, Israel has taken a step few other democracies would openly consider: Hundreds of people have started getting warnings on their cellphones saying that they are at risk, and that the government knows this because it has been tracking their device locations.

“According to epidemiological research, you were close to a coronavirus carrier on March 6, 2020,” read one message sent Wednesday by the Israeli Ministry of Health. “You must go into isolation until March 20, 2020, in order to protect your relatives and the public.”

In the run-up to the warnings, which were first reported by Israeli media, the country’s public-health officials had already been posting online information about the specific movements of infected people who had voluntarily disclosed such details.

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Opinion: Coronavirus in the Holy Land: Israel has been ready for a crisis such as this

This week, the government issued an emergency cabinet decree that allowed it to go further by reinventing a secret counterterrorism program as a public-health measure.

During the 2000s, the Israeli government started issuing legal orders that compelled telecommunications companies to release data logs about cellphones – including device locations as they pinged celltowers. State security agencies created a running database that allowed for particular phones to be searched over time. This technique, known as geolocation, can create a record of anyone’s movements and associations to specific people and specific places.

Israeli government officials this week exposed the use of these geolocation-data techniques as they announced they would be funnelled from security agencies to public-health officials fighting coronavirus. “I have avoided, to this day, all the years I have been prime minister, to use them within the civilian public – but there is no choice,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters.

Privacy groups and opposition politicians in Israel are pushing back, arguing that by approving these powers in the dead of night, the outgoing government did an end run around the courts and legislature. The newspaper Haaretz wrote in an editorial that “the state should not determine the locations of law-abiding citizens, whose only crime is to be infected by the coronavirus.”

Israel is not alone in wanting to watch the spread of the virus by deducing people’s proximity via their cellphones. The Washington Post reported this week that the U.S. government is in talks with Facebook and Google for potential handovers of their user-location data – albeit in “anonymized, aggregated" form. That way, public-health officials could better identify epicentres and watch the spread of the disease.

Canada, which has relatively strict privacy and data-protection laws, has not announced any similar measures. But rights groups are watching to see whether this could happen.

“Any mass surveillance efforts to use cellphone data to track COVID-19 would need to be authorized by law, be tightly constrained,” said Brenda McPhail of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

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Provincial emergency-powers acts could allow some governments to try to compel handover of data held by telecommunications corporations, said Leah West, a former Canadian Justice Department lawyer. But she added that federal laws “wouldn’t be able to be interpreted in such a broad way."

Government authorities in Canada are allowed to send warnings to people’s cellphones. Amber Alert warnings about missing children are now routine. In 2016, the Ontario Provincial Police got a court order allowing its detectives to send text messages soliciting tips from thousands of people whose phones were near a murder scene. This past January, people living within 10 kilometres of an Ontario nuclear power plant were warned about an incident there – though that message was sent in error.

But all this doesn’t go as far as what’s being done in Israel.

Canadian health officials say that warnings about the movements of infected people are useful only at the onset of an outbreak. "When you have increasing community transmission that becomes less salient information to provide – because once you have circulation in the community, you have circulation in the community,” Eileen de Villa, the City of Toronto’s chief medical officer, told reporters on Wednesday.

Two weeks ago her office did release information about the bus and subway routes taken by an infected person, but she anticipates such warnings will be sporadic. “You move more to measures like mitigation measures and have to emphasize less on case-in-contact measures, simply because of the volume and the numbers.”

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