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Israel Approves Tracking Phones Of Coronavirus Patients

JERUSALEM (CBS Local) -- The Israeli government will track the movements of those infected with the coronavirus and those who were around them in the 14 days preceding their diagnoses using their cellphone data and other technologies.

The emergency measure, which was approved by government on Sunday, will be valid only during the coronavirus crisis and for 30 days, at the end of which the information will be entirely deleted, The Times of Israel and Haartez reported.

"We in the government approved — following seven hours of consultations and deep professional discussions, and with many exceptions and structurally built-in protections — the mechanism to electronically block the spread of corona," Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich says in a tweet.

The Shin Bet security service will not be allowed to use the data for any other purposes, and it will be given to the Health Ministry immediately. Violations will be considered a criminal offense.

The measures, which will give the Shin Bet the legal power to monitor the entire population, has raised significant concerns about its implications on personal privacy.

"I can assure you all unequivocally: there isn't and won't be a 'Big Brother' in the State of Israel, even in the framework of an extreme event like what we are dealing with now," Smotrich tweeted, referring to George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984."

China and South Korea already use smartphone apps to monitor people with the disease; some American technologists have begun working on tracking apps.

Ramesh Raskar, a professor at the MIT Media Lab, is developing an app that would let people log their movements and compare them with those of known coronavirus patients, using redacted data supplied by the state or national public health departments.

Raskar's team released a prototype for testing on Friday, Wired reported Sunday.

Raskar says he's contacted the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Although none have endorsed the idea yet, "They are giving us guidance on what will work," he said.

Others argue the technology should be added to smartphones by default.

An open letter signed by several dozen prominent technologists, executives and clinicians and posted on Tuesday, urged Apple and Google to update their smartphone software to make it possible to track contact between people, providing users grant permission.

Peter Eckersley, a distinguished technology fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a signer of the letter, says it should be possible to deploy such a system without establishing a national database that could facilitate government surveillance.

"The checks could happen privately on your own phone" or with advanced security software, he says.

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