More than 100 civil society groups have urged governments not to use the global coronavirus pandemic as cover for future pervasive electronic snooping but to make sure data is erased once the health crisis is over.
In a press release dated 2 April 2020, Privacy International (PI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that, “Efforts to contain the virus have led to a wave of surveillance initiatives unprecedented in its global scale.”
Measures imposed range from the use of informants, police monitors, hand stamping, and public naming of individuals, to the high-tech use of tracking apps and mass surveillance tools. An analysis by PI has found telecommunications location tracking underway in 23 countries, while 14 countries have deployed tracking apps.
The UK-based international non-governmental organization Privacy International noted, “Tech companies, governments, and international agencies have all announced measures to help contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Some of these measures impose severe restrictions on people’s freedoms, including their privacy and other human rights. Unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation are being tested across the world. Many of those measures are based on extraordinary powers, only to be used temporarily in emergencies. Others use exemptions in data protection laws to share data.”
China’s “health code” mobile phone-based monitoring system in Wuhan, the city where the virus is said to have been first passed on to humans, has been emulated in South Korea and Singapore.
At the beginning of April, Hungarian journalists also complained that a new law supposedly aimed at fighting the coronavirus will make objective reporting of the pandemic harder and leave them open to court cases or even jail time for their reporting.
The civil society coalition campaigning against such restrictions has outlined eight conditions which should be met by measures designed to respond to the virus, including that they be lawful, necessary, proportionate, time-bound, and justified by legitimate public health objectives.
Edin Omanovic, Advocacy Director of Privacy International, said, “This extraordinary crisis requires extraordinary measures, but it also demands extraordinary protections. It would be incredibly short-sighted to allow efforts to save lives to instead destroy our societies. Even now, governments can choose to deploy measures in ways that are lawful, build public trust, and respect people’s wellbeing. Now more than ever, governments must choose to protect their citizens rather than their own tools of control.”
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