NEWS
11/04/2020 2:33 PM IST

Welcome To The Coronavirus Surveillance State

Digital technologies for tracking people and monitoring outbreaks may be the only way out of the crisis — but misuse could aid a slide into authoritarianism.

The coronavirus pandemic has already required millions of people to accept limits on their personal freedoms, as countries around the world have imposed lockdowns and enforced strict social distancing measures in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19.

Lifting those restrictions may require people to sacrifice a degree of personal privacy, however — raising concerns among politicians and civil liberties advocates.

Dozens of countries have implemented, or are developing, mobile apps and other technological surveillance systems that allow officials to monitor people’s movements, track the spread of the virus, and contain future outbreaks.

In China, residents have been required to download smartphone software that broadcasts their location to local authorities. A mandatory traffic light-style system determines whether people can move about or meet. Green means they are free to go about their daily lives, but individuals rated red or yellow are not allowed to travel or visit public places such as restaurants or shopping malls.

Singapore and South Korea have used extensive testing and rigorous contact-tracing to help keep the number of coronavirus infections and deaths relatively low

In the United States, Google recently said it would share geolocation data with public officials, and the federal government is in talks with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to use an app they developed to track the location of coronavirus patients via their phones.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service has been working with researchers at Oxford University to develop a smartphone app that traces the contacts of people found to be infected.

“We see it as the only alternative to … applying isolation to the whole population,” David Bonsall, a senior researcher at Oxford who helped lead the project, told The Guardian. “We think it’s going to be a very important part of that strategy.”

Many people may be willing to share such data with government officials if it means they no longer need to remain isolated in their homes. Still, the idea of government authorities closely monitoring where people go and with whom they meet runs counter to deeply held beliefs about privacy and personal freedom — particularly in Europe, which has strict data privacy laws.

The debate has been especially vigorous in France, where the government is considering whether to use digital monitoring to help contain the coronavirus.

“Tracking is one of the solutions that have been adopted by a number of countries, so we have decided to work with them in looking at these options,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said in an interview on French television this week. “I am convinced that if they allow us to fight the virus, and if they do not infringe on individual liberties, tracking is a tool that will be accepted by the French people.”

Other members of France’s leading political party have disagreed with Castaner’s assessment, however.

“For this to work, there would have to be a broad consensus among all the groups, and we are not there,” one member of Parliament told HuffPost France, adding that they were “very concerned about the exploitation of data and respect for privacy.”

“This kind of application is a red line,” Pierre Person, the second-highest ranking member of France’s majority party, La République En Marche, said this week. Person warned that such surveillance measures are the hallmark of “illiberal regimes” and “go against what we are.”

Such concerns are echoed in India, where a tracking app released by the government vastly expands the state’s surveillance capabilities with few explicit safeguards, privacy experts and cybersecurity analysts have warned.

An analysis of the app by Defensive Lab Agency, a Paris-based cybersecurity consultancy, revealed that the software gathers a user’s identity, tracks their movements in real time, and continuously checks if other people who have downloaded the app are nearby, HuffPost India reports. There is little clarity on who can access the data or how long it will stay on government servers, experts said. Moreover, the app’s user agreement states that the data can be used in the future for purposes other than epidemic control. 

“I think the bigger concern is, is this going to open the floodgates of mass surveillance later on,” Pallavi Bedi, policy officer at the Center for Internet and Society, told HuffPost India.

Joseph Cannataci, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy, recently warned that some countries risked sliding into authoritarianism if new emergency powers established during the pandemic are left unchecked. 

“Dictatorships and authoritarian societies often start in the face of a threat,” Cannataci told Reuters. “Any form of data can be misapplied in incredibly bad ways. If you have a leader who wants to abuse the system, the system is there.”

This month, a group of more than 100 civil society groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, urged governments to safeguard people’s rights, even as they adopt new measures to protect lives and curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“The recent past has shown governments are reluctant to relinquish temporary surveillance powers,” said Rasha Abdul Rahim, deputy director of Amnesty International’s tech division. “We must not sleepwalk into a permanent expanded surveillance state now.”

This week, as individual countries scrambled to develop their own digital surveillance programs, the European Union announced that it would develop common rules for using mobile apps to track the spread of the coronavirus. To assuage privacy concerns, the European Commission said that there will be a strict limit on the processing of personal data, which will be destroyed when the virus is under control.

“I fully support a European approach for the use of mobile applications and mobile data in response to the coronavirus pandemic in line with our fundamental rights,” said Vera Jourova, the European commissioner for values and transparency. “We will ensure this approach is transparent, proportional and based on people’s trust.”

With reporting from HuffPost France, HuffPost India, and Reuters.

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