Campaigners warn that it would be short-sighted for governments to allow efforts to save lives in the COVID-19 outbreak to destroy fundamental rights in societies.

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Around the world, journalists are being gagged and imprisoned, the location of citizens is being tracked and some are being named and shamed on Government websites. This dystopian crackdown on human rights is all taking place under the pretext of keeping people safe from an invisible killer.

COVID-19 has forced governments to introduce emergency legislation that would be unthinkable in any other situation. In many cases, the emergency powers are helping to keep people safe but, in others, they are beginning to look more like power grabs by quasi-dictators who have seen an opportunity.

A stark example of this can be seen in the centre of Europe where Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has passed legislation allowing him to continue to rule by decree for as long as there is a state of emergency – a state which has been declared but has no clear time limit. The legislation paves the way for citizens to be jailed for up to five years for spreading what the state considers to be “misinformation”.

Pavol Szalai, head of the European Union and Balkans desk with Reporters Without Borders, branded it an “Orwellian law that introduces a full-blown information police state in the heart of Europe”.

In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has proposed a law that allows jail terms for those spreading ‘fake news’ about infectious diseases and police have been given the authority to request and obtain metadata from citizens’ private communications. Meanwhile in Poland, Coronavirus patients are being told to download a new app that will require them to take selfies to prove that they are quarantining properly.

The UK Government has also sparked controversy with its Coronavirus Bill, labelled the “most draconian powers in peacetime” by UK campaign group Big Brother Watch because it allows police to detain anyone they believe could be infectious, restrict public events and gatherings and impose travel restrictions. The Government is also reportedly in negotiations with mobile network operators such as O2 and EE, asking them to hand over customer data that could allow people to be tracked through their phones, in the UK and abroad.

Edin Omanovic, advocacy director of Privacy International, warned in a statement that the growing use of invasive surveillance is “even surpassing how Governments across the world responded to 9/11”.

“The laws, powers, and technologies being deployed around the world pose a grave and long-term threat to human freedom,” he said. “Some measures are based on public health measures with significant protections, while others amount to little more than opportunistic power grabs. This extraordinary crisis requires extraordinary measures, but it also demands extraordinary protections. It would be incredibly short-sighted to allow efforts to save lives to instead destroy our societies. Even now, Governments can choose to deploy measures in ways that are lawful, build public trust and respect people’s wellbeing. Now, more than ever, Governments must choose to protect their citizens’ rather than their own tools of control.”

Privacy International is one of more than 100 civil society groups to sign an open letter urging Governments not to respond to the Coronavirus with an increase in digital surveillance if it comes at a cost to human rights. “An increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, in ways that could violate rights and degrade trust in public authorities – undermining the effectiveness of any public health response,” it states.

“These are extraordinary times, but human rights law still applies. Indeed, the human rights framework is designed to ensure that different rights can be carefully balanced to protect individuals and wider societies. States cannot simply disregard rights such as privacy and freedom of expression in the name of tackling a public health crisis.”

Another signatory of the statement is Amnesty International. Rasha Abdul Rahim, deputy director of Amnesty Tech, acknowledged that technology does play an important role in combatting COVID-19 but said that it should not give governments “carte blanche to expand digital surveillance”.

“The recent past has shown governments are reluctant to relinquish temporary surveillance powers,” she said. “We must not sleepwalk into a permanent expanded surveillance state. Increased digital surveillance to tackle this public health emergency, can only be used if certain strict conditions are met. Authorities cannot simply disregard the right to privacy and must ensure any new measures have robust human rights safeguards.”

In the years following the 9/11 terror attacks, the UK and US implemented major new surveillance programmes under the pretext of tackling terrorism. This included almost all US mobile phone companies providing the US National Security Agency (NSA) with all of their customers’ phone records and the UK’s Government communications headquarters, GCHQ, intercepting fibre optic cables around the world to capture data flowing through the internet.

These programmes and many more were revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. In a video conference interview for the Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival, Snowden spoke of the dangers that the virus now presents to civil liberties.

On governments taking health data from devices such as fitness trackers to monitor heart rhythms, he said: “Five years later, the Coronavirus is gone, this data’s still available to them – they start looking for new things. They already know what you’re looking at on the internet, they already know where your phone is moving, now they know what your heart rate is. What happens when they start to intermix these and apply artificial intelligence to them?”


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