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Israel seeks treasure trove of sensitive phone data to track coronavirus cases

The Israeli government is looking to use a secret trove of people’s cellphone data to decide who should be quarantined based on if they crossed paths with someone who has the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19. 

The New York Times reports that the classified dataset that would be used is normally meant to combat terrorism. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the move on Sunday, March 15, but Israel’s Parliament’s Secret Services Subcommittee still has to vote to approve the use of this top secret data. 

“The idea is to sift through geolocation data routinely collected from Israeli cell phone providers about millions of their customers in Israel and the West Bank, find people who came into close contact with known virus carriers, and send them text messages directing them to isolate themselves immediately,” the Times’ report reads. 

Location Tracking Visualization
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Israel reportedly only has about 250 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but thousands have been placed in isolation, reports Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper. Though the use of cell phone data to track cases could end up in lower coronavirus numbers for the country, the practice of doing so does raise privacy concerns. 

Governments using people’s cell phone location data is unfortunately nothing new, and even here in the U.S., federal agencies use location data for immigration enforcement, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

Israeli health experts told the New York Times that using the dataset from citizen’s cell phones is meant to help save lives and prevent a dire situation like what is going on in Italy and Spain, in which the entire countries are on lockdown. 

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. In total, there have been more than 174,990 confirmed cases of the coronavirus worldwide, and 6,706 confirmed deaths, according to an online dashboard that tracks cases. The virus is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, but there have been confirmed cases in the U.S., Australia, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, and dozens of countries around the globe.

Here in the U.S. events are being canceled or postponed left and right across the country amid the coronavirus outbreak, including South by Southwest in Austin, E3 2020 in Los Angeles, the New York Auto Show, Google’s I/O Conference in San Jose, California, and many more. Schools have also closed across the country, and many of America’s workforce has resorted to working from home for the foreseeable future. 

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