Surveillance cameras, drones, location data, or tracking card payments are just a few of the measures that a number of states in the world are using to fight coronavirus and limit its spread. International experts on the confidentiality of personal data raise a number of questions about how governments use this data, how it is stored, and the likelihood of maintaining high levels of surveillance even after the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
From Israel to South Korea and China, governments around the world are using the technology to track and spread the coronavirus outbreak. How long will this mass surveillance last? Are these measures a violation of privacy? These are questions that have been asked by a number of groups to respect human rights and privacy, show CNBC in a comprehensive analysis dedicated to how self-treatments in many states are currently using mass surveillance technologies, motivating them as a measure to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic affecting almost the entire planet.
In China, authorities have installed CCTV surveillance cameras to film directly to the door of the quarantined apartments for 14 days to ensure they will not leave. At the same time, drones were sent to people to wear protective masks against coronavirus, and digital barcodes from mobile applications highlighted the health status of people.
These are just some of the ways in which China, the world's second-largest economy, has mobilized its surveillance apparatus to control the coronavirus outbreak.
While some of China's measures seem extreme, other nations around the world have made the decision to use surveillance to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Human rights organizations, however, argue that once monitoring capacities are increasing, it may be difficult for governors to reduce them. In addition, specialists are concerned that surveillance tools, such as data on the location of a person, may not even be effective and there would be no deadline for governments to stop collecting such information, writes CNBC.
“Coronavirus pushes us beyond the limit … perhaps by institutionalizing these systems and, in addition, by making the general public more accepting of these more intrusive measures,” Maya Wang, a senior researcher in China for Human Rights Watch, told CNBC.
What do countries do to fight coronavirus?
The technologies used by governments around the world are aimed at identifying infected people and monitoring quarantine. Countries and cities around the world have been almost closed, a measure aimed at encouraging “social spacing” and reducing coronavirus transmission between people.
In Singapore, the government has launched an application called TraceTogether. Using Bluetooth signals between mobile phones, it monitors whether potential coronavirus carriers have been in close contact with others.
In Hong Kong, some residents have been forced to wear a wristband that is connected to a smartphone application and can alert authorities if a person leaves the quarantine facility.
In South Korea, the government used records such as credit card transactions, smartphone location data and CCTV cameras, as well as conversations with people, to create a case-tracking system confirmed by COVID-19. The result was a map that could tell people if they were near a coronavirus carrier.
On Thursday, the South Korean government released an improved tool, which it says may help to monitor coronavirus patients even more closely in real time, with a view to seeing where the disease has spread.
Meanwhile, the Israeli security agency Shin Bet is using citizens' cellphone location data to track where they were so they can carry out quarantine checks and monitor the movement of those infected with the new coronavirus. Controversially, these data are collected in recent years for the purpose of combating terrorism, he noted. New York Times in an article stating that these data and their collection were not previously announced.
And in some parts of India the hands of people arriving at airports were stamped, telling them how long they should be quarantined, as he wrote earlier Reuters. At the same time, the booking databases of the airlines and the train were monitored to ensure that those persons did not travel. In the southern Indian state of Kerala, authorities use a mix of phone call records, surveillance camera records and phone location data to track people who may have come in contact with coronavirus patients.
In the US, the government is holding talks with representatives of Facebook, Google and other technology companies about using location and movement data from US smartphones to combat coronavirus.
Electronic surveillance for the isolated and quarantined, in Romania
Also in Europe, Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange and five other telecommunications providers, along with the European Commission, agreed last week to share location data collected from the mobile phone, to track the spread of coronavirus, according to Reuters. The measure was taken because people violated the restrictions imposed by the governments of the European states in recent weeks. The Commission said it will use anonymous data to protect the confidentiality of data on the location of the mobile phone and that the data will be deleted after the virus has passed.
In Romania, Prime Minister Ludovic Orban announced last Tuesday that isolated Romanians, as well as those in quarantine, will be monitored electronically. “Together with STS, we are developing an application that allows us to monitor the movements of people in isolation or quarantine, so that we can know if they are moving out of the house. Such software already exists in other countries and will greatly facilitate the mission of the police, gendarmerie, DSP, ”said Orban.
Is location monitoring safe for coronavirus control?
In fighting this pandemic, governments are taking unusual measures to combat coronavirus, including the use of surveillance tools, writes CNBC. One of the most common tools used worldwide is the collection of location data based on smartphones and mobile networks.
But one of the big problems, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit group for the protection of privacy in the digital environment, is that collecting certain data, such as the location of the phone, has not proven to be effective in tracking the spread of the virus. .
“Because the new government powers of location surveillance are such a threat to our digital rights, governments should not be given these powers unless they can show the public how these powers would help, in a significant way, when controlling COVID-19 ”, the EFF representatives wrote in a blog post, according to CNBC.
The organization argued that even GPS on smartphones has a data accuracy of only 4.8 meters, according to official US government information. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the virus can spread among people who are in close contact with others, with the coronavirus spreading from a carrier to a distance of two meters.
“These and other technologies such as Bluetooth can be combined for better accuracy, but there is no guarantee that a particular phone can be located with an accuracy of almost 2 meters,” said EFF.
When will the monitoring and surveillance of people in the background of the COVID-19 pandemic stop?
How long will the data collection continue and when will they be deleted if it happens? These are two key questions asked by the rights defenders regarding the confidentiality of people's data. They highlighted the potential for enhanced surveillance even after the coronavirus outbreak is under control.
Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a non-profit group, raised the issue in an interview for CNBC. He gave as an example the US Patriot Act, passed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, by which the federal government had increased surveillance powers in order to combat terrorism. This law, which was due to expire initially in 2005, was renewed, the last time earlier this month with a validity until the end of this year.
“We have absolutely no reason to believe that government agencies that are willing to expand their power in response to COVID-19 will be willing to lose these authorities once the virus is eradicated,” Cahn told CNBC.
Some governments have made it clear what data they are collecting and how long they will keep the information, although not all have submitted specific data. Authorities in Singapore have stated that the TraceTogether application does not record location data and does not access the contact list in the user's phone. Data records are stored on phones in encrypted form, according to the government. For its part, South Korea has said that its efforts to collect information will end when the coronavirus outbreak ends and that all personal data will be deleted.
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