Countries employing surveillance techniques to fight COVID-19 could disregard right to privacy later

Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash

Countries across the globe are scrambling to find ways to strengthen the fight against COVID-19 and many have turned to tech for additional support. While online privacy and surveillance was a major concern before the pandemic, it is now becoming more worrisome as governments adopt more and more invasive approaches to combat the spread. Over the past couple of months, concerns have arisen over the use of mass-surveillance in states like China and Israel. European countries followed suit after the number of people affected by the virus grew at an alarming rate.

Health code, surveillance and COVID-19 in China

China led the way in excessive monitoring of the public in times of the global crisis. A number of apps were developed that tracked the movements of citizens through telecom companies, alerting all parties if they were in the proximity of a sick patient. In addition to this, a “health code” service was being run giving citizens colour coded designations that indicate the health and safety of mobility of a person, according to which green would mean ‘safe from infection’ and red would indicate ‘at high risk’, restricting the mobility of individuals in public areas like train stations, inter-city travel, etc. Chinese citizens were concerned as to the transparency of these apps, raising questions on whether China will continue to use these surveillance techniques after the pandemic has ended.

Spy agencies to surveil on own citizens in Israel

In Israel, the Government passed a bill to allow the country’s internal spy agency, Shin Bet, to conduct mass cellphone surveillance. Israeli residents received text messages around mid-March, announcing that their movements were being tracked and that the data collected will only be used for this purpose. The citizens did not seem to believe the latter part of the message, giving rise to a privacy scare amongst citizens and human rights activists. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a media and technology researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, criticised the plan saying that a state of emergency doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to turn the State of Israel into a police state. Other countries that are actively using telecom services to track and quarantine individuals who may have tested positive for the infection include China, Taiwan and South Korea.

Authoritarian regimes a challenge for privacy

Countries are looking at South Korea as an example of a success story in terms of controlling infections in the early days of its outbreak. While it is most definitely worth the praise, the success can be attributed to the wide range of surveillance techniques adopted by the country’s health authorities early on during the outbreak. Due to the authoritarian traditions practiced in regions like South Korea and China, criticism of the government’s policies is not appreciated as it is in democratic models of governance. For instance, in Europe, privacy is widely protected under the General Data Protection Rules (GDPR), and European countries are struggling to balance their obligations under the GDPR and adopting measures to track the movement of people as they attempt to control the spread of coronavirus that has crippled the healthcare system in the region.

Exceptions to be made under GDPR in Europe

In mid-March, the European Commission urged region-wide telecom giants to cooperate with EU nations by giving access to anonymised mobile phone data to the governments. The Commission insists that the handling of the data in anonymised form will ensure that the data processing is in line with GDPR guidelines. The Regulation allows for processing of data without consent of the data-owners only if it is necessary for the larger public interest. Because of this, a number of EU countries have now started collecting data from telecom companies including the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany.

The worst hit from the pandemic, Italy, has been using a cell-to-cell displacement analysis system for cell phones. This is done to understand how many inhabitants move around its territory. It does so through the traffic data of the repeaters that is made available by the telecom companies and the index of ‘signals’ that move from one phone to another.

There have been debates about whether the right to privacy is an absolute right, or if it can be set aside for a global health crisis such as the ongoing pandemic. While it is indeed difficult for the victims of the virus to focus on privacy rights at the moment, it must be kept in mind that once surveillance systems like these get strengthened to the extent that we see today, it becomes harder to resist them once the crisis is over.  There is no guarantee that this level of government intrusion into the daily lives of the people will not be used for purposes that have nothing to do with the greater public interest. 

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Salwa Rana is a lawyer who specialises in digital human rights policymaking.

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