Defense Ministry to Use Computer Analysis to Find Coronavirus Carriers

TEL AVIV (Reuters) -
israel coronavirus
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Israel’s Defense Ministry plans to use software that analyzes data gathered from mobile phones – produced, according to Israeli media, by the spyware firm NSO – to help locate likely carriers of the new coronavirus in order to test them.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters that the “coronameter” would need approval from the cabinet – likely to be given – as well as an assessment of privacy issues from the attorney general, who has the power to block it. But it could be operational within 48 hours of getting the go-ahead.

Israel already tests around 5,000 people a day for the virus. It hopes soon to double the number of tests. To help it decide whom to test, it is using military-level surveillance to track civilians’ movements – prompting complaints about invasion of privacy from rights groups.

Bennett said the cellphone tracking and geolocation data currently being used were no longer effective in finding the most likely carriers.

According to Israeli media, the system assigns a rating of 1 to 10 to the likelihood that a person is carrying the virus. This is updated in real time and could, for example, jump if someone visits a grocery store where carriers have been identified.

Israeli media said the software had been developed in cooperation with NSO.

NSO declined to comment and Bennett said he would not “announce who and what, because there are also complex elements in this context.”

The FBI is investigating NSO on suspicion of hacking U.S. residents and companies and gathering intelligence on governments, as reported by Reuters in January.

Bennett said that, while not perfect, the new software was the best option available to find likely carriers.

“All that is needed is to pour in the testing information, to link up the cellular tracking which we are making use of anyway, today, in the epidemiological tests.”

A source close to the matter said NSO’s first civilian product was being tested by about 15 governments around the world for use by health regulators.