LONDON: From facial recognition to phone tracking, authorities have rolled out a vast range of surveillance tools to trace infections and enforce quarantines during the new coronavirus outbreak.
The deadly respiratory disease has so far infected more than 2.1 million people worldwide and killed about 145,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
But privacy groups and researchers warn that measures brought in to protect and monitor citizens in exceptional circumstances, when most people accept they are needed, could outlast the current crisis.
Here is what digital rights experts say about the trade-off between public health and digital surveillance, and whether monitoring measures are likely to be fully rolled back after the immediate risk from COVID-19 has passed.
Rasha Abdul Rahim, deputy director, Amnesty Tech
“Privacy and effective responses to the pandemic are not mutually exclusive at all: technology can and should play an important role in this as long as it’s part of a broader strategy and as long as it’s compliant with human rights.
One of the trends we’re seeing across the world is almost a default setting of increased surveillance without the case actually being made that these new measures are effective, necessary and proportionate.
There needs to be much more transparency about the nature of partnerships that governments are forging with companies to come up with these kinds of solutions.”
Diego Naranjo, head of policy, European Digital Rights
“Given the serious public health crisis that all member states in the EU are facing, data collection from citizens can be very valuable for developing a greater understanding of the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
However, responses need to be fundamentally right-based with necessity and proportionality in mind. It is essential that, after the crisis finishes, the exceptional measures end as well.
This cannot become another ‘war on terror’ with endless exceptional measures to combat potentially endless future pandemics.”
Edin Omanovic, advocacy director, privacy international
“The surveillance laws and tech being rolled out are unprecedented in their global scale. Some of the measures are considered responses to a public health emergency, some are less so – and some are outright power-grabs.
As we move towards various stages of dealing with this pandemic, the risk is that we’ll see new demands for different types of surveillance technology, for example biometric tools to track immunity and monitor public spaces.
It’s very likely that some authorities will simply re-purpose these tools, or rely on their normalisation to keep them in place.
This doesn’t have to be the case: there are more privacy-friendly alternatives out there, and safeguards such as purpose limitation and sunset clauses which would prevent some of the worst excesses of this from happening.”
Marjorie Buchser, executive director, digital society initiative, Chatham House
“In Europe, the crisis is very likely to have a chilling effect on technology regulations that were forthcoming … yet, compared to half a decade ago, government entities are more aware of the pitfalls of technology.
In many countries, some privacy-preserving regulations (such as GDPR) are already in place.
But this is not necessarily the case everywhere in the world. In many regions, citizens should be concerned as there is a real risk that emergency measures such as the deployment of surveillance technology become permanent and normalised.”
Steve Killelea, executive chairman, Institute for Economics and Peace
“For many democracies this is perhaps the very first instance of a mass surveillance program where they are directly targeting their citizens.
Once out there, these deeply invasive technologies will be a powerful tool for governments to re-use.
Leaders with an authoritarian bent will try and justify the need to maintain this network either as a means to prevent future outbreaks, or to monitor the current disease levels to prevent a second wave.
Civil society will need to remain vigilant, otherwise the recent trend, prior to COVID-19, of increasing loss of privacy, more intrusive surveillance and control will gain momentum, undermining the effectiveness of our democratic processes.”
Sandra Wachter, Associate Professor, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford
“I worry about two things: first, that we are giving up our privacy rights and other human rights too easily without knowing about the positive effect for public health.
And second, that we will get used to the ‘new normal’ and not return to our high standards of privacy once the crisis is over. Only constant risk assessment will show us when the threat has faded to within normal parameters.
If we don’t do that we run the risk of remaining in a constant state of emergency with limited human rights protection.”



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