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OPINION: Why we need restrictions on coronavirus surveillance

by Courtney C. Radsch | Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
Saturday, 28 March 2020 13:00 GMT

A man wearing a protective face mask walks under surveillance cameras as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Shanghai, China March 4, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As the world implements surveillance tech to track coronavirus, we must ensure this is done with respect for privacy

Courtney C. Radsch is the Advocacy Director at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic that has swept the world is just beginning to be felt as we reconfigure our social and economic relations and adopt new practices like social distancing and sheltering in place. As governments around the world struggle to stave the spread of the disease they are understandably harnessing the power of technology. We must ensure this is done with respect for human rights and civil liberties and that we don’t weave a surveillance apparatus that can’t be undone.

Today we are seeing reports of national and regional governments tracking infected residents and those who may have come into contact with them, deploying facial recognition technology and thermal monitors in public spaces to identify who might be at risk or track those who break quarantine. All indications are that these technologies have been speedily rolled out without a human rights impact assessment or sufficient regulations to safeguard privacy or future, alternative uses. 

These technologies are being deployed quickly and, it appears, without human rights impact assessments, sufficient privacy controls, or adequate restrictions on their use outside of the current context.

Once a technology is built, even if it is for the best of goals, it exists. Once a capability is created, there is no reverting back. And once a precedent is set, it’s nearly impossible to overturn.

In South Korea, the government publishes information about the locations of infected people, gleaned from cell phone GPS tracking, credit card records and surveillance videos, on a government website as does Singapore, which also pulled ride-sharing app data to inform its public tracker. In Austria and Italy, telecom providers are providing anonymized data to authorities in hopes of staving the spread of the virus.

Apps that monitor compliance with quarantines are being rolled out in Poland, Kenya and parts of the United States and in Europe, which has some of the world’s strongest personal privacy protections, authorities have called on national telecoms to share anonymized mobile phone data with Brussels to help them track the spread of the virus. 

While all of these technologies promise to enable authorities or individuals to better mitigate the pandemic, there’s an dearth of information about who has access to the data, how long it can be maintained, what sort of privacy rights people in the databases have, what types of restrictions are in place to ensure the data is only used as intended to combat the spread of the virus, and what could be done with the technology afterwards. If there is one thing we know from technological solutions, once a capacity is built it can be used for many purposes beyond that for which it was intended.

The NSO Group, for example, sells sophisticated surveillance technology it says is for fighting terrorism to governments around the world, several of which have turned around and deployed it against journalists. Its Pegasus spyware has been linked to government surveillance of journalists in India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and the United States, including associates of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Now the company is reportedly testing in a dozen countries a new technology that matches location data collected by national telecoms with two weeks of mobile-phone tracking information from an infected person to identify those vulnerable to contagion who were in the patient’s vicinity for more than 15 minutes.

The massive surveillance repercussions of coronavirus cannot be overstated. And they could be perilous for journalists, who depend on the ability to communicate confidentially with their sources and track stories without being tracked themselves. Too many in the industry that is filling the coronavirus induced void have poor human rights records, and too few constraints and safeguards have been put in place by even the most well-meaning governments. Restrictions on how, and for how long, the collected data can be used is paramount. And implementing sunset clauses on any new surveillance powers is essential if we don’t want coronavirus to undermine our rights as well as our health.