A group of civil society organizations has called for restraint after warning that governments around the world are rolling out invasive surveillance programs on a massive scale to track and manage the spread of COVID-19.
A statement signed by 100 civil liberties groups argued that “efforts to contain the virus must not be used as a cover to usher in a new era of greatly expanded systems of invasive digital surveillance.”
It claimed that human rights should still be respected even in extraordinary times.
“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 letter continued. “Such measures also pose a risk of discrimination and may disproportionately harm already marginalized communities.”
Privacy International claimed that telecoms-based tracking is already underway in 23 countries, while 14 have deployed tracking apps.
Back in mid-March, the UK government was revealed to be receiving tracking data from mobile carriers to check whether citizens were respecting its social distancing guidelines. A similar strategy is thought to be in play in the US.
However, that’s some way from the extreme surveillance seen in China, where some local authorities are offering people rewards for informing on ill neighbors, and even getting into one’s apartment or workplace requires scanning a QR code, and logging name, ID number, temperature and travel history.
“The wave of surveillance we’re seeing is truly unprecedented, even surpassing how governments across the world responded to 9/11,” argued Privacy International advocacy director, Edin Omanovic.
“The laws, powers and technologies being deployed around the world pose a grave and long-term threat to human freedom. Some measures are based on public health measures with significant protections, while others amount to little more than opportunistic power grabs.”
The rights groups have issued a list of eight conditions governments should meet, including the use only of “lawful, necessary and proportionate” surveillance which continues only as long as the pandemic.