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COVID-19 alert goes up and personal privacy goes down

Tracking entire populations to combat COVID-19 could open the doors to more invasive forms of government espionage later on.

In South Korea

They are using surveillance camera footage, smartphone location data, and credit card purchase records to help track recent movements of coronavirus patients and establish chains of virus transmission.

In Lombardy, Italy

They are analyzing location data transmitted by citizens' mobile phones to determine how many people obey a government shutdown order and the typical distances they travel every day. About 40 percent is moving "too".

In Israel

The country's internal security is poised to start using a cache of mobile phone location data, originally intended for anti-terrorist operations, to try to identify citizens who may have been exposed to the virus.


As countries around the world compete to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, many are implementing digital surveillance tools as a means of exercising social control, even turning security agency technologies into their own civilians.

It is understandable that law enforcement and health authorities are eager to use every tool at their disposal to try to prevent the virus from spreading, even if surveillance efforts threaten to upset the precarious balance between public safety and personal privacy. world scale.

Increase vigilance

To combat the pandemic, it could now open doors to new, more invasive forms of invasion later. It is a lesson that Americans learned after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, say civil liberties experts.

Almost two decades later

Law enforcement has access to more powerful surveillance systems, such as precise location tracking and facial recognition, technologies that can be reused for other political agendas such as anti-immigration policies. Civil liberties experts warn that the public has few resources to challenge these digital exercises of state power.

"We could easily end up in a situation where we empower the local, state, or federal government to take action in response to this pandemic that fundamentally changes the scope of American civil rights," Albert Fox Cahn said.

As an example

He pointed to a law enacted by the state of New York this month that gives Governor Andrew M. as unlimited authority to govern by executive order during state crises like pandemics and hurricanes. The law allows you to issue emergency response directives that could override any local regulation.

Increased surveillance and disclosure of health data has also eroded violent and people's ability to keep their health private.

This month

The Australian health minister publicly rebuked a doctor whom he accused of treating patients while experiencing symptoms of the virus, essentially betraying him by naming the small clinic in Victoria, where he worked with a bunch of doctors.

The healthcare provider

He tested positive for the coronavirus, responded with a Facebook post saying the minister had mischaracterized his actions for political gain and demanded an apology.

"That could be extended to anyone, so that the state of their health is suddenly affected by thousands or potentially millions of people", said Chris Gilliard, an independent privacy scholar based in the Detroit area.

"It is very strange because, in the interest of public health, you are putting people at risk."

Emergencies like pandemics

Privacy should be seen as other considerations, such as saving lives, said Mila Romanoff, data and governance leader at United Nations Global Pulse, a UN program that has studied using data to improve emergency responses to epidemics like Ebola. and dengue. fever.

"We need have a framework that allows companies and public authorities to cooperate, to allow an adequate response for the public good ", Romanoff said.

To reduce the risk that coronavirus surveillance efforts may violate people's privacy, he said, governments and companies should limit the collection and use of data only to what is needed. "The challenge is", added, "How much data is enough?"

The rapid pace of the pandemic

It is pushing governments to implement a mosaic of digital surveillance measures in the name of their own interests, with little international coordination on how appropriate or effective they are.

In hundreds of cities in China

The government requires citizens to use software on their phones to automatically classify each person with a color code, red, yellow, or green, indicating the risk of contagion.

The software determines which people should be quarantined or allowed to enter public places like the subway. But officials have not explained how the system makes such decisions, and citizens have felt powerless to challenge it.

In singapore

The Ministry of Health has published information online about each coronavirus patient, often in surprising detail, including relationships with other patients.

The idea is to warn people that they may have come across them, as well as alert the public to potentially infected locations.

"Case 219 is a 30-year-old man," says an entry on the site of the Ministry of Health, who worked at the

"Sengkang Fire Station (50 Buangkok Drive)" is "in an isolation room at Sengkang General Hospital" and "is a member of the Case 236 family."

Friday Singapore It also introduced a smartphone app for citizens to help authorities locate people who may have been exposed to the virus. The application, called TraceTogether, uses Bluetooth signals to detect nearby mobile phones.

If a user of the app later tests positive for the virus, health authorities can examine the app's data records to find people who cross their path. A government official said the app preserved privacy by not revealing the identities of users to each other.

In Mexico

After public health officials notified Uber of a passenger infected with the virus, the company suspended the accounts of two drivers who had taken it, along with more than 200 passengers who had traveled with those drivers.

In the U.S

The White House recently spoke to Google, Facebook, and other tech companies about the potential use of aggregated location data captured from Americans' mobile phones for surveillance of the virus in public health.

Several members of Congress wrote a letter urging President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to protect any virus-related data companies collect from Americans.

Digital dictations

They allow governments to exercise more social control and enforce social distancing during the pandemic. They also raise questions about when surveillance can go too far.

In South Korea

In January, the government began publishing detailed location histories of each person who tested positive for the coronavirus.

The site has included a wealth of information, such as details on when people left for work, if they wore masks on the subway, the names of stations where trains changed, massage parlors, and karaoke bars they frequented, and the names of the clinics where they were tested for the virus.

In South Korea's highly wired society

Internet crowds exploited patient data released by the government site to identify and harass people by name.

In South Korea he had an unusual reaction. Concerned that privacy invasions could discourage citizens from being tested for the virus, health officials announced this month that they would refine their guidelines for sharing data to minimize patient risk.

"We will balance the value of protecting individual human rights and privacy and the value of upholding the public interest in preventing mass infection." said Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in South Korea.

That's a tricky balance that some United States officials may need to consider.

In New York

Earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted about a lawyer who was the second person in the state to test positive for the virus, including the name of the seven-person law firm; A few hours later, The New York Post identified the lawyer by name and soon referred to him as "patient zero" in the coronavirus outbreak in New Rochelle.

In a response posted on Facebook, Adina Lewis Garbuz, an attorney who is the man's wife, Lawrence Garbuz, pleaded with the public to focus on the personal efforts the family had made to isolate themselves and notify the people they came into contact with. with them.