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Wed 28 October 2020
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Tasnim Nazeer explores how powerful governments are using invasive digital surveillance under the guise of curbing COVID-19.

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Taking personal information from social media accounts, stepping up facial recognition and collecting biometric data without consent are just a few of the ways in which governments around the world are taking surveillance to a whole new level.

Although, in some democratic countries, surveillance is being used to analyse health data related to COVID-19, authoritarian regimes also appear to be using the pandemic as an excuse to double down on gathering data, silence critics and misuse information. 

Human Rights Watch has noted that the Chinese and Russian Governments are just two examples of those expanding their surveillance capabilities and restricting people’s rights in ways that are not justified on public health grounds.

“Under the guise of fighting the novel Coronavirus, authorities in China have escalated suppression online by blocking independent reporting, information sharing and critical comments on Government responses,” Renee Xia, international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), told Byline Times. “Aggressive cyber policing and invasive online surveillance have played a key role in the initial Government cover-up of the outbreak and hampering vital information flow, contributing to significant delay of emergency responses and loss of life.”

The unprecedented nature of COVID-19 has opened up an opportunity for these Governments to enforce more stringent measures in order to obtain information that tracks and monitors people’s movements, apparently to assess the effectiveness of health interventions. However, the gathering of large data sets for COVID-19 could pose risks for those living in poverty or within a minority in a non-democratic country and could even cost lives. 

Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Senior Fellow in the Asia Programme at the German Council of Foreign Relations, told Byline Times that “the issue of  invasive surveillance in China is not new but the Coronavirus crisis is raising important questions about how it will be deployed, particularly in the medical sphere”.

“We have seen an enormous development of surveillance systems domestically in China for some years now to the point where people are rightly talking about technological totalitarianism,” she said. “Everyone in the world needs to think about how to deal with the challenging issue of how technology is increasingly being deployed in all areas of our lives and tracking us and how we are going to hang onto our freedom.”

Censorship in countries such as China, which does not want anyone to criticise the Government’s response to the pandemic, is already well established. It has been reported that there was censorship of reports on the Coronavirus when it first broke out in Wuhan at the end of November. Despite the efforts of Chinese journalists to get the information out, they were silenced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and subsequently reprimanded and put in jail. A doctor who wanted to warn people about the virus consequently died from it. Now that the country appears to have a grip on the virus, intrusive surveillance will very likely be kept in place to monitor discussions, messages, movements and the details of anyone who dares to speak against the Government’s approach to COVID-19.

Methods of aggressive surveillance has been previously used by China on its Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, placing them into forced detention and making them undergo indoctrination. This does not bode well for those concerned that intensified methods could put more people at risk of such actions over the Coronavirus.

“China is way ahead of the world in establishing these surveillance systems,” according to Didi Kirsten Tatlow. “People in China have very little recourse to push back against it. With the virus there is an extensive contact tracing issue, what they call ‘social management’, which is really code for social control and public security systems.

“The key here is to ensure that we push back on our rights to know what is going on, have transparency and be able to see our own records. If we are going to be contact traced on our mobiles, we need to have access to what the authorities are taking and see what they are storing. We should have our own data accounts and some way of networking to build up social and democratic resources to remain in control.”

The ‘health code’ app has been introduced in China, which local authorities rely on to make decisions about quarantining individuals. 700 million people are registered on the app who have given their personal details, including their ID number, where they live, whether they have been with people carrying the virus and their symptoms. The app then uses three colours to determine whether they can go out or whether they need a seven or 14 day quarantine. Some details are shared with police such as the location of the person. However, the questions asked via the app are not effective enough to get an accurate diagnosis.

But, not all countries are using digital surveillance for sinister ends, says Didi Kirsten Tatlow.

“In Taiwan and South Korea they have successfully dealt with the virus using surveillance but there is high social acceptance of these methods as they haven’t gone to extremes as they do in mainland China,” she told Byline Times. “The crucial difference is the political context and that the data will not be abused.”


Russian Disinformation

China is not the only country that has been intensifying surveillance. Russia currently has 100,000 facial recognition cameras, which it alleges keep track of individuals who have been ordered to quarantine for 14 days. The use of the cameras has led to fears that the data collected will be used to identify those critical of the Russian Government and to silence criticism.

In addition, Russia has built a COVID-19 high-tech centre which uses artificial intelligence to watch the movements of people coming out of their homes in case they are evading quarantine. It has reportedly also installed facial recognition software on people’s mobile phones, prompting concerns about whether such intensified surveillance will ever be removed. The surveillance system has also been used to analyse the social networks of those who have or are suspected of having the Coronavirus.

A Russian citizen who moved to the US told Byline Times: “The technology being used by Russia is violating our rights and has been for some time. They are trying to control our every move and crack down on activists. My family lives there and I fear what is to come after the Coronavirus has settled down. I do not think these surveillance mechanisms will be rolled back, instead it will be used for Governments like Russia to take total control of its people.”

A leaked EU report found that pro-Kremlin outlets in Russia have sought to aggravate the public health crisis by spreading disinformation around COVID-19. This has included the claim that COVID-19 is being used as a biological weapon created by China, the US or the UK.

“The COVID-19 pandemic provides favourable conditions for data opportunism: for corporations such as Google that wish to expand their domination in spheres such as health data and for governments everywhere that will benefit from installing the tracking of citizens’ locations as a way of life,” Nick Couldry, Professor of Media, Communications and Social Theory at the London School of Economics, told Byline Times. “Emergencies are very often the pretext for permanent interruption of freedoms, so it is particularly important that current measures’ long-term consequences for human rights are subject to close scrutiny. Social and political freedom must not become collateral damage in the fight against the Coronavirus.”

Human Rights Watch identified eight conditions that governments using surveillance technology need to adhere to curb COVID-19 and protect human rights. These include being limited in purpose, upholding human rights against abusive surveillance, being transparent about any data sharing agreements and mitigating any risk of enabling discrimination or other rights abuses against marginalised populations. Failing to do this could lead to a detrimental erosion of trust between authorities and the public and could result in hindering efforts to combat COVID-19 around the world. It seems unlikely that the powerful regimes in China or Russia will adhere to such conditions.

It is paramount that the issue of surveillance and intrusive data gathering is not overlooked amidst the growing Coronavirus crisis. COVID-19 has already cost lives and caused chaos around the world, let’s not let this pandemic be a means of exploitation for governments to take away people’s human rights and dignity too.


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