The coronavirus outbreak is sparking the rollout of more digital surveillance

Wednesday, April 22, 2020
By Paul Martin

by: Franz Walker
Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The global coronavirus pandemic and the measures being implemented to stop its spread are rewiring people’s sensitivities about digital surveillance and data privacy. Governments around the world are now rolling out surveillance schemes — even some that are particularly invasive — all in the name of stopping the pandemic. Privacy advocates, however, warn that these governments will not want to let go of these technologies, even after the crisis is over.

Big Brother is watching — and wants you to stay at home

In both South Korea and Israel, authorities use telecom data to track potential COVID-19 patients. Investigators in South Korea can scan smartphone data to find people who might have caught the coronavirus from someone they met within the space of 10 minutes. Israel, on the other hand, has tapped its anti-terrorist Shin Bet intelligence unit to track down potential COVID-19 patients using phone data.

In the United Kingdom, at least one police force has started using drones to monitor public areas, shaming any residents caught going out for a stroll. Tunisia has taken similar steps, deploying security robots equipped with thermal cameras to enforce the lockdown in the capital city of Tunis.

These measures are just some examples of how governments have turned to digital surveillance tools to track and monitor individuals in the name of slowing the spread of the pandemic. Many citizens in these countries have even welcomed the tracking technology intended to bolster defenses against the coronavirus.

Governments in Asia are setting a dangerous precedent, as most of them do not seek permission from individuals to track their cellphones, all in the name of identifying COVID-19 patients. After the initial outbreaks, the governments of China, South Korea and Taiwan have chalked up their early successes in flattening infection curves, in part, due to their use of surveillance programs.

China, in particular, used smartphone data to track people who had left Wuhan, where the pandemic began, to go on holiday over the Lunar New Year. This information was then used by local officials who contacted the targeted individuals, asking them to quarantine themselves even if they hadn’t shown any symptoms. The country also used security cameras and travel records to identify people who had been in contact with COVID-19 patients on trains, airplanes and even street corners, putting these people in forced isolation.

Europe and America trying to follow suit

Privacy laws and expectations tend to be more stringent in the West. However, that hasn’t stopped governments in Europe and the U.S. from trying out different methods of digital surveillance.

Some European nations plan to monitor their citizens’ movement using the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project. Those involved in the project claim that the technology used respects the privacy of those it monitors.

“We embrace a fully privacy-preserving approach. We build on well-tested, fully implemented proximity measurement and scalable backend service,” states the project on its website.

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