The world's most intrusive contact tracing program has failed spectacularly

Like every other nation, Israel has failed to “stop the spread” of COVID-19.

In March, amid an uncontrolled outbreak of global panic related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Israeli government sprung into action, tasking the Shin Bet, the nation’s premier internal intelligence agency, with the role of implementing a world-class contact tracing regime. The Shin Bet, best known for having one of the most sophisticated counterterrorism platforms in the world, is now leveraging its terrorist-hunting, technological prowess to hunt down a different enemy: a submicroscopic super infectious particle.

Israel’s contact tracing program had at first met some questions about its role in authorizing what amounts to a total surveillance state. After all, there is a bit of a difference between your average citizen and a jihadi terrorist, but Israelis maintain a high level of confidence in their government institutions, and thus, the program has been continually reauthorized without much scrutiny under the belief that it is working to “stop the spread.” The Israel Democracy Institute has placed the program’s measures almost on par with China’s permanent surveillance state. However, China has largely downgraded the coronavirus as a serious threat, and appears to be out of the business of attempting to contain the virus.

The Israeli contact tracing program uses both GPS monitoring and a cell phone’s Bluetooth technology (in addition to whatever classified military-grade technology that is being utilized) to track citizens who test positive for the virus or those who were potentially in contact with infected COVID-19 positive individuals. People who are determined to be in “contact” with a carrier of the virus are mandated by law to home-quarantine for at least 14 days. Their movements are tracked, and rule breakers are subject to fines and other penalties. The contact tracing regime was paused temporarily halted due to privacy concerns, but renewed shortly thereafter after the Israeli parliament reauthorized it under a new law.

In addition to the ultra-invasive contact tracing program, Israel launched one of the most brutal lockdowns on record, and on top of that, a mandate for mask wearing. Movement between cities was banned, and people were only allowed to leave their homes for approved activities such as going to the grocery store.

The first lockdown was an unmitigated disaster. It transformed a healthy, thriving country into a state on the brink of economic and societal collapse. Some 55% of Israelis reported they had gained weight and adapted an unhealthy lifestyle from being locked in their homes all day. The lockdown was lifted out of absolute economic necessity, after unemployment soared to record highs, with some 1 million Israelis (in a country of 9 million people) finding themselves out of work.

After a couple months of freedom, Israel once again returned to a partial lockdown in late July. The prevailing “wisdom” at the time was that Israel had left lockdown too early, and it was necessary to reboot the lockdown to get back on track in “fighting the virus.” 

That lockdown didn’t work either. Fast forward to September, and Israel is now seeing more COVID cases than ever.

On Tuesday, Israel reported a record high number of COVID cases, almost six months into launching the most intrusive contact tracing program in the world. The country has reported around 10,000 new cases over the past few days, which has likely completely overwhelmed the already defective contact tracing program.  

If you look at what’s going on related to COVID-19 throughout the region, it’s pretty clear that Israel’s new cases have little if anything to do with their internal non pharmaceutical intervention programs. Obvious, but ignored seasonal factors appear to be driving the latest boost in infections, which are being seen by Israel’s neighbors on a similar scale.

Perhaps Israel’s best hope to avoid another punishing lockdown comes from its scientific community. There is a small, but growing movement in the country to take a hands-off approach to the virus, similar to what Sweden has done in moving beyond the virus. Still, it seems all of the momentum for a freedom-based approach is getting squashed by an oversensitive, panicked class of government officials and bureaucrats.

Sadly, the Israeli government appears to be doubling down on the COVID security state, and regressing into further nanny state efforts that are guaranteed to fail. The government has instituted a new 7pm-5am curfew for many cities across the country, and it is virtually guaranteed that another brutal lockdown is imminent.

Israel imposed arguably the most restrictive COVID mitigation and suppression strategies on earth, using cutting-edge counterterrorism measures for mapping contacts, in addition to several other non pharmaceutical interventions (lockdown, masks, curfews, etc), and it was not even enough to make a dent in stopping or slowing the virus.

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