July 5, 2020

What rights are we willing to forgo to defeat the virus?

Photo by Kirill Sharkovski on Unsplash

With coronavirus cases rising rapidly across nation-states, from both the global south and the north, some governments and administrations are implementing dangerously invasive COVID-19 contact tracing policies. These  are in gross violation of individual rights to privacy and freedom of expression. While most nation-states are guilty of releasing track-and-trace surveillance applications that violate the aforementioned rights, only two have gone as far as to reportedly use counterterrorism surveillance technologies and methodologies on its own citizenry. The countries in question aren’t China or Russia, they are Israel and Pakistan. 

The Imran Khan led PTI government has reportedly outsourced coronavirus tracing and tracking in the state to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. The government is set to use geo-fencing and phone monitoring systems to track  individuals that are suspected to have the virus and persons that could be potential vectors for transmission. 

With the state pandering to the religious right and easing of lockdowns in all major cities, the federal government resorted to implementing a track and trace policy that rights organisations say lacks transparency and general accountability. While Imran Khan himself has praised the program, major concerns pertaining to privacy and confidentiality come to mind. 

Even though Former Google executive and head of the Prime Minister’s Digital Pakistan unit, Tania Aidrus, is “incredibly confident” that data collected in the era of the coronavirus will be handled responsibly by all relevant authorities, there have already been occurrences of data breaches that are cause for concern. 

Pakistan has also released an application designed by the National Information Technology Board (NITB) that notifies individuals when they are within a certain radius of someone who has COVID-19. However, the Ministry of Information hasn’t clarified as to how this information is obtained and as to what degree of a mobile user’s privacy and confidentiality are maintained.

Google and Apple’s recent release of their much-touted coronavirus tracing application programming interface (API), at least 23 states have now begun using it to base their contact tracing applications on. “To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralisation risks,” said Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. While the service hasn’t been offered in Pakistan yet, experts are of the opinion that the API is in accordance with international privacy standards. This is especially important given the issues that have already arisen as a result of Pakistan’s data leaks. 

In an Express Tribune article from mid-March, Pakistan’s first coronavirus patient, Yahya Jaffery talked about his experience of having his personal data leaked to the press which resulted in his being made out as a “pariah.” Numerous other health professionals and patients have had to deal with information leaks as well. 

The potential for abuse has caused greater outcry from privacy advocates, including Media Matters for Democracy. They  released a joint statement with other digital rights advocates last month which detailed the extreme usage of digital surveillance mechanisms and highlighted the necessity for upholding rights to privacy amidst the pandemic. 

The statement also called for the cyclical deletion of personal information obtained during the pandemic. The contact-tracing and social-distancing application designed and released by the Norwegian government mandates that the information obtained from its users only be used for the pandemic, and that it be deleted every 30 days. However, it is now becoming clear that extensive biometric surveillance and data infringement might outlast the virus itself. 

In a county within the Chinese province of Zhejiang, authorities have now been inspired by contact tracing applications to experiment with digitised social control. In the province’s capital Hangzhou, authorities determined an individual’s personal health index based on a citizen’s level of personal activity, dietary habits and other unspecified factors. This application inspired officers of the Chinese Communist Party in the Tiantai county to develop a separate tool called the “honesty health code,” which uses personal data to determine and evaluate party loyalty, general uprightness and commitment to their work. 

Instilled to improve political efficacy, these apps  constitute  a major breach of privacy and violate human rights law. It also indicates how the coronavirus pandemic might revolutionise the purposes of personal data-mining and undue surveillance. It is examples like these that have privacy experts concerned about the involvement of military intelligence  in  contact tracing programs and digital surveillance. 

Through geo-fencing and phone-monitoring technology, the Pakistani state plans to watch over and regulate neighbourhoods where coronavirus patients are supposedly residing. The discreet tracking system would notify authorities immediately whenever an individual were to leave a designated area. While geo-fencing isn’t exclusive to Pakistan, when coupled with excessive phone-monitoring this degree of surveillance equates to that reserved for individuals believed to be terror suspects and militants. 

The story by AFP also said that the state  intends to listen in on calls of coronavirus patients to detect whether or not any of their contacts are displaying any symptoms of the virus. Owing to the lack of transparency of the program, the government  has not specified the degree to which it intends to  surveil civil society or whether or not it intends to tap into a user’s social media applications. Since the intelligence agencies supporting the government possess the ability to wiretap into phone-calls, if on average a user were in constant contact with ten individuals, at least 400,000 Pakistanis would have their personal conversations warrantlessly wiretapped. 

Since the government hasn’t clarified if it intends to monitor chat logs, the state  could theoretically, solely through the first degree of separation, monitor the conversations of millions of Pakistanis. While the pandemic necessitates that a certain degree of information can be accessed by governmental authorities, the system in place need not be this invasive. Employing militant-grade technology and deploying it on peaceful citizens is a gross violation of international privacy standards and stifles freedom of expression, promoting unconstitutional surveillance. 

Advocacy groups, politicians and numerous other ordinary citizens are concerned by the degree of power being afforded to an organisation that has had a controversial history of stifling political opponents and journalistic voices. Afrasiab Khattak, former senator and member of the Awami National Party, is of the opinion that the ISI should take no part in assisting with COVID-19 tracking. “The task of tracking and tracing the patients and suspected cases should be dealt with by provincial governments and local communities, let intelligence agencies do their actual job,” Khattak said. 

The state’s intelligence apparatus has been accused of exploiting the pandemic to stifle dissidence and systemically crackdown on ethnic minorities. With the ISI being accused of having been involved in the cold-blooded murders of Sajid Hussain, Shahdad Baloch, Ihsan Baloch and Arif Wazir within the first week of May, many in the state believe that it wouldn’t be uncharacteristic of them to exploit these new state-mandated responsibilities. 

The implications of biometric surveillance could aid in accentuating censorship of journalists and members of the media as well. Human rights groups have claimed that the state  has employed intimidatory tactics and has a history of suppressing journalistic voices within the nation. The fear of militant-grade surveillance technology being used to subdue members in their profession remains a valid concern.   

The Pakistani government can look to neighbouring China or to Kashmir as examples of what can happen when entirely unregulated surveillance is allowed to occur and as examples of communities deprived of fundamental digital rights. The PTI administration must ensure that the data extracted in the health pandemic is used conscientiously by increasing transparency and general accountability. We are already starting to see how the pandemic has marked a stark increase in authoritarian tendencies globally and thus, the PTI government must consider the very real implications of forgoing digital rights to defeat the virus.

Written by

Moosa M. Waraich is a rising Junior at New York University majoring in politics and journalism. He's a Summer 2020 intern at Media Matters for Democracy.

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