What if the coronavirus pandemic is to data tracking as 9/11 was to homeland security?
The Israeli government approved an emergency measure this week to track civilian mobile-phone data in order to monitor the spread of COVID-19. Although Israel's parliament is still hammering out the logistics of this mandatory program, Ynet news reported the Health Ministry activated the initiative on Wednesday, texting 400 people to inform them they were exposed to the virus and must now stay in quarantine.
In the face of COVID-19’s exponential growth, governments worldwide are weighing which tools to deploy. Supporters of the emergency measures in Israel argue aggressive outreach will save lives, while critics say these government powers won’t be rolled back after the pandemic winds down.
Surveillance is more widespread in this nation of nine million than in others, which is why many Israelis aren't panicking, even if they are skeptical of government intervention.
“They will do it again for other things,” Ben Simon said of the emergency coronavirus measures.
“We’re seeing trust in the government shattered in a power grab that might destroy 80 years of democracy as we know it,” said blockchain consultant Maya Zehavi.
Tel Aviv Bitcoin Embassy volunteer Sarah Wiesner is also concerned about these emergency measures.
“I imagined they could do this before. It's not shocking. But making this legally easy to access is terrifying and makes you want to wear [an anti-facial-recognition] mask and walk around without a cellphone,” she said.
Given related responses to the spread of the virus, there’s reason to believe this crisis will catalyze other changes. For example, Israel’s transportation ministry is banning the use of cash on most public transit, a policy that was already in place in Tel Aviv. Instead, people use ID cards loaded at public offices.
Wiesner isn’t sure whether her movements are tracked this way as well, but she is generally concerned about the normalization of sweeping surveillance.
“They don't miss a chance to gather information,” she said of Israel’s government. “The cash ban on buses has nothing to do with the coronavirus. But they decided to push the schedule to the rest of Israel faster.”
Many Israelis aren’t alarmed by these emergency measures because they seem to be more of the same for a country technically at war since its founding in 1948.
One East Jerusalem resident, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely, said such surveillance policies don’t concern him any more than usual. The Arab-Israeli citizen who used to commute to work in Tel Aviv’s crypto industry said coming under scrutiny is already routine for him.
“[Soldiers] hang out a lot in our neighborhood. They know the color of our underwear. There’s not much to hide. It’s a small country so they know everything about everyone,” he said regarding how these surveillance tactics are already common for use against Palestinians.
That's why, he said, he’s not bullish on bitcoin. In his situation, censorship-resistance feels futile.
Bitcoin is more often viewed as another payment or investment tool in Israel these days, rarely as a political or criminal tool like in the West. In a country where most people go to the army, there’s a broad understanding that civilians and terrorists often use the same tools. Regardless of whether it’s with balloons or bitcoin, people who live under the watch of an army know tools can only be used to circumnavigate laws as long as the military doesn’t physically (or digitally) stop them.
Back at the Tel Aviv Bitcoin Embassy, the bitcoin ATM will be the only open aspect of the nonprofit, said co-founder Meni Rosenfeld. Gatherings of over a dozen people are now strongly discouraged, and the government can tell through mobile data who disobeys. A civil liberties group has already started petitioning the Israeli Supreme Court to suspend the monitoring program.
The East Jerusalem resident joked that now Jews can enjoy the same surveillance Palestinians have known for decades.
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