New Israeli Covid-19 Infection Ranking App Reminiscent of China’s Citizen Ranking System, Experts Say
Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett is pushing a new system that gathers data on Israeli citizens and automatically rates their coronavirus infectability. Privacy, tech, and law experts say the system endangers democracy
Last week, the Israeli parliament’s (the Knesset) subcommittee for secret services gathered for an especially turbulent discussion on the country’s emergency regulations. In its effort to curb the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19), the Israeli government has allowed the Israel Security Agency, also known by its Hebrew acronym Shin Bet, to collect information from civilian phones using unspecified technological means.After initially being frozen, the decision has been reinstated by Israel’s Supreme Court last week as long as it is reviewed by the Knesset.
All of the experts interviewed by Calcalist for this article suggested Bennett’s system would constitute a step up in Israel’s attempts to employ surveillance, spying, and policing technologies against private citizens. Under the veil of a temporary state of emergency, they said, the defense ministry would be granted a mandate to treat anyone like a potential public enemy.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute believes the notion of using the military to build an app for collecting information on civilians, whose only crime is potentially being ill, is nothing short of outrageous. “Bennett is taking means designed to counter attacks by outside enemies and pointing them towards civilians,” she said. “Fighting the coronavirus pandemic should be done using the most advanced technologies but these should be developed while maintaining the citizens’ right to privacy.” This right, she added, is not simply a hurdle to jump over. According to Shwartz Altshuler, developing the app without first gaining the attorney general’s approval is illegal, even in a national emergency. Nobody asked Bennett to put Israel in the same category as China, assigning colors and ranks to civilians, she said.
The use of such tools has a tendency to become deeply rooted in state procedures, Ofek said. “If you can track coronavirus patients, why not do the same for criminals, and if it is ok for criminals then why not keep tabs on unfaithful husbands or kids who decided to skip school,” he said. If they really want to beat the virus, Ofek added, they need to gain the collaboration of the pubic through respectful means like the health ministry’s voluntary app HaMagen, which tells users if they have been in contact with confirmed patients. If, however, they are looking to destroy all signs of social solidarity, he said, they should bring in spy companies and employ snitching methods that will break the public’s spirit.
According to the experts Calcalist spoke to, one of the most concerning aspects of Bennett’s planned program is the involvement of NSO. Founded in 2010, NSO develops cyberattack tools that can be used to gather intelligence from mobile phones and other devices, with its flagship product being a spyware program called Pegasus. The Israeli firm has repeatedly stated that it sells exclusively to governments and law enforcement agencies and that its spyware has saved tens of thousands of lives, but over the past two years, it has made headlines around the world due to the alleged use of its spyware to surveil journalists, politicians, and human rights activists.Why should a private company like NSO, which has been tied to various incidents of human rights violations and persecution against oppositionists and journalists, be a part of this government development, Karine Nahon, a professor of information science and president of the Israel Internet Association, asked. “Do the defense ministry, Mafat, and the military’s Computer Service Directorate suffer from a shortage of talented staff, ability, and technology?”
NSO has a bad reputation of being employed by non-democratic regimes to go after members of the opposition and human rights activists, Ravia said. The ministry’s decision to partner with it is astoundingly insensitive at a time when people are working hard to balance between maintaining their privacy and maintaining public health, he added.Another concerning issue is possible bias by the AI system, which might rank people from specific populations at higher risk levels without actual justification. When AI systems decide on social issues, there is a risk of these systems magnifying the existing biases of those who programmed them, Nahon said. “Someone that has a lot of children, for example, is likely to be ranked as a bigger risk by the system, because they are exposed to more people on a daily basis, but does this necessarily make them ill or suggest they should be quarantined? Will there be a way to appeal the judgment made by an AI system ranking your entire lifestyle on a scale of one to ten?”
According to Shwartz Altshuler, the potential for ill-treatment of certain populations is extremely high. “In China, they put ethnicity and area of residence into the calculations they used to rank the population and it begs the question if here too different rankings will be given to Jews and Arabs, to those who make more or less money, to Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) compared with the general population, not to mention political stances or voting patterns,” she said. “This is what happens when you let the algorithm decide,” she added.“Information is power and whoever has information from multiple sources has a lot of power,” Shwartz Altshuler said. “This type of app, which hands out grades to citizens, is an app for dominance. The temptation to use it against civilians for other means the day after the coronavirus crisis will be too great for politicians and security and defense organizations to resist.”