Computer analysis to assist in finding Israeli coronavirus carriers

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Israel’s defence ministry plans to use software that analyses data from mobile phones – produced, according to Israeli media, by the spyware firm NSO – to help locate likely carriers of the coronavirus to test them.

Defence Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters 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. It could be operational within 48 hours of the go-ahead.

Israel already tests around 5 000 people a day for the new virus, which can cause respiratory failure but also be present without causing symptoms and imposes strict quarantine on those who have it.

It hopes to double the number of tests. To help decide who to test, it is using military level surveillance to track civilians’ movements – prompting invasion of privacy complaints from rights groups.

To date, Israel has recorded 4 347 virus cases and 15 deaths. As of Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was self-isolating after a parliamentary aide tested positive for the virus.

Bennett said cellphone tracking and geolocation data currently in use were no longer effective in finding likely carriers.

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

Israeli media said the software was developed in cooperation with NSO.

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

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

Facebook’s WhatsApp sued NSO in October after finding evidence it abused a flaw in the chat programme to remotely hijack hundreds of smartphones.

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

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

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