Israel halts disputed Omicron tracing through phone surveillance

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Travellers exit the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic testing area at Ben Gurion International Airport as Israel imposes new restrictions
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  • Naftali Bennett
    Prime Minister of Israel

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel said on Thursday it was halting the use of mobile phone tracing to curb the spread of the new coronavirus variant Omicron, a practice that had been challenged by privacy watchdogs.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's government authorised the surveillance technology, which matches virus carriers' locations against other mobile phones nearby to determine their contacts, to be used for Omicron cases on Nov. 27.

That authorisation will not be renewed after it lapses at midnight between Thursday and Friday, Bennett's office said in a statement, citing "up-to-date situational assessments".

The technology, originally developed by Israel's Shin Bet security agency for counter-terrorism and counter-espionage, had "contributed over the last week to the effort to break the chain of infection", the statement said.

Israel has confirmed at three cases of the new variant and at least 30 others are suspected of having contracted it, the Health Ministry said.

Earlier on Thursday, Israel's Supreme Court rejected a petition by four rights groups seeking to repeal the measure.

"Considering the uncertainty around the Omicron variant and its effects..., it has not been proven that the Shin Bet authorisation poses a disproportionate infringement on the right to privacy which would justify its striking down," the ruling said.

Earlier this year, the court limited the scope of the technology's use after rights groups mounted challenges over privacy concerns when it was implemented on a wider scale.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich)

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