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Latest on coronavirus surveillance: How governments are monitoring citizens

by Umberto Bacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 13 May 2020 16:30 GMT

A software engineer works on a facial recognition program that identifies people when they wear a face mask at the development lab of the Chinese electronics manufacturer Hanwang (Hanvon) Technology in Beijing as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus , China, March 6, 2020. Picture taken March 6, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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Authorities around the world are using facial recognition, apps and big data to track the spread of COVID-19 and monitor people under quarantine

Coronavirus is changing the world in unprecedented ways. Subscribe here for a daily briefing on how this global crisis is affecting cities, technology, approaches to climate change, and the lives of vulnerable people. 

By Umberto Bacchi

This story is being regularly updated with new developments.

TBILISI, March 27 - The coronavirus pandemic has pushed governments globally to impose draconian lockdowns, travel bans and tighter border controls in a bid to stem the spread of the contagious virus.

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From China to Russia, containment measures have often come with heightened surveillance, as authorities use artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to keep tabs on the population, alarming human rights activists and privacy experts.

Here is a rundown of governments rolling out technology to track and contain the outbreak:


Authorities across China have rolled out "big data" measures, adding to a host of monitoring tools already being used, such as facial recognition and phone data tracking.

These include apps monitoring the daily temperature of students preparing to return to school or assigning people colour codes based on their travels, time spent in outbreak hotspots and exposure to potential carriers of the virus. 


In South Korea, private software developers have set up websites and apps to help people track cases and shun places where infected people have been.

Identities were not published but the information that was enabled web developers to build detailed maps tracking the movements of patients. 

Those in quarantine are monitored through a mobile app. People who breach self-isolation rules will be made to wear an electronic wristband, according to local media reports.


Australia rolled out an app already used in Singapore to improve contact tracing by detecting whether people had spent more than 15 minutes with others who may have been infected.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said downloading the smartphone software would initially be voluntary, but declined to rule out making its use compulsory.


In May India ordered all public and private sector employees to use a government-backed contact tracing app that uses Bluetooth and GPS technology to alert users who may have come in contact with people who later test positive for COVID-19.

Earlier, people suspected of having the coronavirus in India have received hand stamps and are being tracked using their mobile phones and personal data to help enforce quarantines. 

Government officials also pulled out citizen and reservation data from airlines and the railways to track suspected infections.

The southern state of Karnataka asked people in home quarantine to upload one selfie an hour to a phone app during daytime to confirm their whereabouts, according to local media reports. 


Singapore, which has been using police investigators and security cameras to help track suspect carriers, launched a contact-tracing smartphone app to allow authorities to identify those who have been exposed to people infected with coronavirus.

Records of the encounters will be stored locally on each phone and the data will be encrypted. The app will not access other information, such as a user's location, and its functionality will be suspended after the epidemic subsides. 


Hong Kong has been handing electronic wristbands to overseas arrivals put under quarantine.

A QR code in the bracelets is meant to pair with a smartphone app to identify those who break the 14-day isolation period. 


Thailand has rolled out a mobile app that anyone arriving at an airport must download to help monitor where they have been in the event that they test positive for the virus. 


Taiwan is using location data from smartphones to ensure that people who are quarantined stay in their homes. The system alerts police when people move away from their address or turn off their phones.


Azerbaijan has required people wanting to go outside to get prior authorisation from authorities by sending a text message listing their ID code and reason for leaving their residence.


Police in Moscow have used facial recognition technology to catch more than 200 people who violated the terms of their self-isolation or quarantine. 

City authorities have also introduced a digital permit system which will require residents to seek permission to leave the house for work, or to make trips by car or public transport. 

Legislation passed by the Armenian parliament allows authorities to tap into people's phones to gather data about their movements and communications, including who they call and when.


In May Britain started testing a COVID-19 tracing app on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England. 

The phone app, which will be voluntary to use, gives the option to anyone who has symptoms or a positive test, to enter their details to start a tracing process to notify people who have come in contact with them. 


The port of Antwerp is to begin testing wristbands developed by a Belgian company that could help workers keep a required distance apart by giving warning signals if they come too close of each other.

The developers said the wearable could also offer contact tracing but for data privacy reasons the app is not designed to allow companies to track the location of their workers.


The government is planning to use cellphone and bank card data to track and isolate contacts of people with coronavirus. 

A mobile app based on Bluetooth technology that people will be encouraged to download will also help determine which phone numbers came in proximity with identified patients.

Poland launched app Home Quarantine to keep tabs on citizens returning from abroad who are required to self-isolate.

Users have to upload personal details and a photo to the app and are then sent periodical reminders to upload a new selfie, which is verified by facial recognition and has its location stamp checked against the registered address.

Irish health authorities said the government is to roll out a voluntary phone-tracking app to alert users if someone they have been in contact with develops COVID-19.

The Georgian government said it was using drones to monitor a strict lockdown it imposed over two southern regions after a woman who attended a wake there tested positive for the virus.


The Bulgarian parliament has granted the army the right to help curb movement of people in large groups and allowed the authorities to use mobile operators' traffic data to track those put under quarantine. 


Police in the French Riviera city of Nice are using a drone to blare health warnings to residents walking the streets.

Armed with a loudspeaker, the drone whirrs above some of the city's most popular locations, reminding citizens of the government's order to stay indoors except to buy food, go to work or seek medical help.


In Italy, mobile carriers have offered authorities anonymous and aggregated data to monitor people's movements, while respecting Europe's privacy laws.

The hard-hit Lombardy region is using the data to see how many people are observing a strict lockdown. 


Germany, like Italy, is using aggregated data donated by Deutsche Telekom to get insights into whether people are complying with curbs on movements.

The country also launched an app that gathers vital signs from volunteers wearing smartwatches or fitness trackers - including pulse, temperature and sleep - to analyse whether they are symptomatic of the flu-like illness.


Austria's largest mobile phone company is sharing with authorities results from an application using data to map the movements of groups of people.

Originally developed to study traffic congestion and people flows around busy tourist sites, the tool is now in use to assess the effectiveness of lockdowns and other social distancing measures to fight the virus.


The South African government has teamed up with mobile network operators to develop a track-and-trace database to identify the whereabouts of people who may have contracted the coronavirus.

The system uses phone data to track an infected person and identify those they may have exposed to the virus.


Police in the United Arab Emirates are deploying smart helmets that can scan the temperatures of hundreds of people every minute.

Dubai police also announced they are using radar patrols and other monitoring tools to track people's movement by checking their licence plate numbers, as part of efforts to keep people at home during curfew. 

The authorities will begin publishing photos of people who violate curfew restrictions without blurring out their faces, the head of cyber crimes at Dubai Police said in local media.

In neighbouring Abu Dhabi, residents who are ordered to isolate at home must check in regularly with the health department using the "StayHome" app to prove they aren't violating their quarantine. 


Tunisia's government sent patrol robots on the streets of Tunis to warn people to stay home during the lockdown. 

Operated from a control room, the security robot uses video surveillance cameras and a two-way voice system to communicate with the public, but authorities have not yet shared how people's data will be used or protected.


The Israeli government deployed cellphone-monitoring technology enabling the Shin Bet security service to tap into cellular data to retrace the movements of the infected.

The data, customarily used for anti-terrorism, will be used by the Health Ministry to locate and alert those who have been in their vicinity, the government said.


Google sister company Verily launched a website inviting adults in northern California to answer questions about their recent health and travel that could result in their getting a free coronavirus test.

Verily said people's responses would be kept in an encrypted database and shared with healthcare authorities.

A group of infectious disease researchers is also using Facebook mobile location data to evaluate the effectiveness of social distancing orders.

The anonymised, aggregated data is used to provide insights like the average distance of trips users have taken in a city and the proportion of residents who have stayed closed to home.


In May the Canadian province of Alberta launched the country's first tracing app, which uses Bluetooth technology to identify phones that have come into 2-metre contact with an infected person for at least 15 minutes within a 24-hour period.

Once a person with the app becomes infected, health services will ask them to upload encrypted data that will allow tracing workers to reach others who have been in close contact.


Brazilian wireless carrier TIM Participacoes SA said it has partnered with Rio de Janeiro's city hall for data analysis that will help authorities track displacement and concentration of people in areas affected by the outbreak.

This should allow the city to identify mobility trends across neighbourhoods and ultimately assess whether the population is respecting social isolation measures taken to contain the disease. 

Related stories: 

Internet shutdowns 'not justified' in coronavirus outbreak

Privacy fears as India hand stamps suspected coronavirus cases

Under watch: Indian city workers protest digital surveillance

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi, additional reporting by Rina Chandran, Annie Banerji, Ban Barkawi, Beh Lih Yi and Sonia Elks. Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)


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