As governments around the world come to terms with the impact of COVID-19, citizens are facing new draconian restrictions which include travel bans and forced quarantine. These are the types of restrictions which are normally associated with totalitarian and/or communist states. The merits of the efficacy of these efforts deserves debate, but there is no debate to be had. Rules are in place, and citizens must obey.
What is more concerning than this complete temporary loss of freedom, are the new laws, and privacy-blocking regulations which are being implemented. We are talking about a complete loss of privacy, and an erosion of basic human rights.
Previously, country wide monitoring using using facing recognition technology via a camera network was used to identify and track the movements of people on terrorist watchlists. That same technology is now being applied to anyone who is deemed infected or has previously traveled within the past two weeks.
Below we highlight some of the Governments that have taken advantage of the current pandemic, to implement systems designed for long-term surveillance.
Russia has taken advantage of COVID-19 to fast-forward their plans to blanket the country with a massive facial recognition system. The system was rolled out earlier this year with major public backlash. Privacy advocates were filing lawsuits to attempt to reduce the amount of potential government surveillance.
With fear at its side President Vladimir Putin was able to curb this backlash. Russia argued that public safety was the number one concern and that Facial Recognition does not invade peoples privacy. These proceedings took place on the pretext of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Today the surveillance network has been activated. The 170,000 camera-wide system is now programmed to track the movements of anyone who leaves quarantine or self-isolation. Now that the system is in place, the odds of rolling back the technology are next to none.
With this technology is place, Russia which has a proven history of tracking and killing uncooperative journalists, has increased their arsenal to monitor the movements of anyone who makes a disparaging comment regarding President Vladimir Putin or the state.
Russia has solidified their totalitarianism control, other countries are following in these footsteps.
Less than two weeks ago the Israeli government approved tracking the movement of people who are deemed ‘suspected’ of infection of COVID-19. Tracking would be via the data on your mobile phone. Most people carry their mobile phones on them at all times, which enables governments to be informed of your current location.
What is especially concerning is that this bill was passed in an overnight sitting of the cabinet, bypassing parliamentary approval.
This enables the full-time tracking of all Israeli citizens. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel labeled this as a “dangerous precedent and a slippery slope”. These were also powers which were previously only enabled for counter-terrorism operations.
While currently implemented to track ‘suspected’ COVID-19 patients. With this new law in place, future implementations of the technology are up to interpretation.
What if you were forced to wear a wristband to continuously update the government to your whereabouts? While previously this was used on criminals., March 19th, is when Hong Kong enacted regulations to use it on non-criminals, used precisely to track passengers and to place them in forced quarantine.
The wristbands are connected to a smartphone app and will be used to make sure people actually stay at home. Refusal to wear the wristband or leaving the confines of your home can result in a six month prison sentence.
The long-term precedent of a government entity being able to control the movement and tracking the locations of its citizens should be of concern to anyone who believes in privacy. This is especially true in the case of Hong Kong which has long fought China to retain its independence.
The United States was slow to wake up to COVID-19, due to the initial outrageous claim by the Trump administration that the outbreak was a liberal hoax. The tide has since shifted with the federal government proposing and then reversing from a quarantine of New York state, among other measures to fight the outbreak.
A recent development which should concern us is the United States communicating with tech giants such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Uber, Apple, and IBM to share data about all of its users. Currently the data is to remain anonymous, but once location tracking is in place, it’s only several lines of code to disable user privacy and anonymity.
The current use case is using machine learning to decipher the location of future hotspots in order to better prepare healthcare workers. Monitoring of this big data should be implemented by a non-profit entity in order to ensure that the data is used specifically to track outbreaks.
This conglomerate of companies has the potential to enable unfiltered access to every single facet of a persons life. From all social media communication, to geo-location tracking. It remains to be seen if democratic values will hold with more government surveillance requests. In the meantime there is cause for concern.