Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
In the Age of Information, personal data is critical – for the benefit of the public or to its detriment. As the Coronavirus has heightened fear and threatened health across the world, it has been the perfect time for new surveillance measures to be rolled out. Will tracking the global populace aid in stopping the spread of COVID-19, or does the virus simply make for a convenient excuse? And what will become of these digital surveillance strategies once the virus is either overcome or simply accepted as part of our new reality?
Worldwide Human Rights Violations?
Top10VPN, a VPN advice website, has published a COVID-19 Digital Rights Tracker, logging instances of digital tracking, physical surveillance, and censorship brought about by the virus. “Some of these may well be proportionate, necessary, and legitimate during these unprecedented times. However, others have been rushed through legislative bodies and implemented without adequate scrutiny,” states the site. “As the virus continues to spread around the world, so too do sophisticated surveillance measures and restrictive censorship practices.”
Asia is still leading the scoreboard when it comes to censorship, but Europe quickly caught up and surpassed everyone in the digital-tracking stakes. Physical surveillance is a more even split between those two continents and North America.
Here is a sampling of measures from around the world:
- Taiwan has erected an “electronic fence” that monitors phone signals and notifies police if anyone who is supposed to be in quarantine leaves their homes. Authorities can contact or visit the offenders within 15 minutes. Ecuador has a similar “epidemiological fence” monitored by satellite. (Have we reached the point where people can no longer conceive of leaving their homes without their device – even if this is how the police surveil them?)
- Hong Kong has handed out location-tracking wristbands for those in quarantine. At least these can be discarded after the COVID-19 crisis and do not track one’s personal device.
- Poland launched an app that not only tracks locations but also forces people to take a photo of themselves at certain intervals so that the location data can be cross-referenced with facial recognition. This is intended to simulate a police visit.
- Various countries, including the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Austria, are collecting anonymized location data from smartphones.
- Aerial drones have been used in Australia, Belgium, Spain, and the U.K. to patrol public places – New York City used helicopters to much the same effect.
In the U.S., anonymized location tracking has been the primary mode of digital surveillance, and the White House is reportedly in talks with tech companies to utilize smartphone GPS data. Silicon Valley companies – most notably Google – were quick to jump on the location tracking bandwagon. More recently, start-ups Tectonix and X-Mode traced the movements of phones that had been present on one Fort Lauderdale, FL, beach gathering, before the attendees dispersed across the Eastern Seaboard. Tectonix then uploaded the video on Twitter to promote social distancing.
“Without adequate tracking, there is a danger that these new, often highly invasive measures will become the norm around the world,” Samuel Woodhams, Top10VPN’s Digital Rights Lead, told Business Insider. “Although some may appear entirely legitimate, many pose a risk to citizens’ right to privacy and freedom of expression.”
“There is a risk that many of these new capabilities will continue to be used following the outbreak,” Woodhams continued. “This is particularly significant as many of the new measures have avoided public and political scrutiny and do not include sunset clauses.”
Human Rights Groups Condemn Digital Surveillance
In a statement signed by over 100 civil society groups, Amnesty International questioned the measures imposed to limit COVID-19, suggesting that government overreach was rife. The organizations urged “governments to show leadership in tackling the pandemic in a way that ensures that the use of digital technologies to track and monitor individuals and populations is carried out strictly in line with human rights.” The groups asserted, “States cannot simply disregard rights such as privacy and freedom of expression in the name of tackling a public health crisis.”
According to the statement:
“Technology can and should play an important role during this effort to save lives, such as to spread public health messages and increase access to health care. However, an increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, in ways that could violate rights and degrade trust in public authorities – undermining the effectiveness of any public health response.”
The organization stated that increased digital surveillance should be employed only under the following conditions:
- It is “lawful, necessary and proportionate.”
- It is time-bound, and only in place during the pandemic outbreak.
- Information collected is used only to limit COVID-19 and for no other purpose.
- The data must be collected, processed, and held in a secure manner.
- The use of digital surveillance must acknowledge a risk of increased discrimination against minorities and those living in poverty.
- Public-private partnerships must be transparent, publicly disclosed, and lawful.
- Any application of digital surveillance must “incorporate accountability protections and safeguards against abuse.”
- The response should “include means for free, active, and meaningful participation of relevant stakeholders.”
“The recent past has shown governments are reluctant to relinquish temporary surveillance powers. We must not sleepwalk into a permanent expanded surveillance state now,” said Rasha Abdul Rahim, Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech.
Those in lockdown may be imagining what will happen when life “goes back to normal” – but will we all be forced to accept a new “normal”?
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next week to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.