Israel to use 'spyware' to find likely coronavirus carriers

Israel tests about 5,000 people a day for the new virus

Israel's Prime Minister and leader of the Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in the Israeli central city of Petah Tikva on March 7, 2020.   / AFP / Jack GUEZ

Israel’s Defence Ministry plans to use software reportedly produced by spyware company NSO to analyse data from mobile phones that will help to identify likely carriers of the coronavirus.

Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said the “coronameter” would need approval from the Cabinet, which it is likely to be given.

It would also require 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 being approved.

Israel tests about 5,000 people a day for the virus, which can cause respiratory failure but can also be present for days without symptoms.

Strict quarantines are imposed on those who have it.

It hopes to double the number of tests soon and is using military-level surveillance to track civilians’ movements, prompting complaints from rights groups.

So far, Israel has recorded 4,831 cases of the virus and 17 deaths.

As of Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was isolating himself after a parliamentary aide tested positive for the virus.

Mr Bennett said the phone tracking and geolocation data now being used were no longer effective in finding the most probable carriers.

Israeli media reported that the system assigns a rating of 1 to 10 for the likelihood that a person is carrying the virus.

This is updated in real time and could, for example, increase if someone visited a shop where carriers had been identified.

Israeli media said the software was developed in co-operation with NSO.

The company declined to comment and Mr Bennett said he would not elaborate because “there are also complex elements in this context”.

The FBI is investigating NSO on suspicion of hacking US residents and companies, and gathering intelligence on governments.

WhatsApp sued the company in October after finding evidence it had abused a flaw in the platform to remotely hijack hundreds of smartphones.

Mr Bennett said that while not perfect, the new software was the best option available.

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

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