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World risks permanent surveillance with coronavirus controls

April 3, 2020

Don't "sleepwalk" into permanent surveillance in the coronavirus pandemic's aftermath, warn 100 civil society groups. Digital surveillance rolled out to curb the virus should be limited in time and scope, they say.

World risks permanent surveillance with coronavirus controls
Image: picture-alliance/Sven Simon

More than 100 civil society groups urged governments Thursday not to use the global coronavirus pandemic as cover for future pervasive electronic snooping but instead make sure data is erased once the health crisis is over.  

Hasty initiatives to access mobile phones to trace population interactions and especially infected persons "threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association," warned Privacy International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"Dictatorships and authoritarian societies often start in the face of a threat," UN Special Rapporteur Joseph Cannataci said. "That is why it is important to be vigilant today and not give away all our freedoms."

"We must not sleepwalk into a permanent expanded surveillance state now," cautioned Rasha Abdul Rahim, deputy director of Amnesty International's tech division.

HRW said — just weeks into the pandemic — 14 nations were using applications to trace carriers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus or enforce quarantines. And some 24 countries already used telecommunications for location tracking.

Privacy concerns

China's blanket "health code" tracing in Wuhan, the city where the virus is said to have been first passed on to humans, has parallels in South Korea — where maps emerged tracing patients — and Singapore.

Voluntary usage has been encouraged in other nations such as Austria, where an app called "Stopp Corona" has been downloaded 130,000 times.

Users are told they will be notified if later one of their contacts contracts the virus. Austria's Justice Minister Alma Zadic dismissed privacy concerns, saying she would download the app herself.

In Israel, 1.5 million people have downloaded "HaMagen," an app that alerts users if they have crossed paths with a coronavirus patient. "We need to make sure all Israelis have the app," said Morris Dortman, deputy director general of Israel's Health Ministry.

Read more: Will Germans trade privacy for coronavirus protection?

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in surveillance-ridden communist East Germany, said Wednesday she was "willing" to submit to tracing if a prototype system proved helpful.

After a public outcry over a plan to ask mobile phone operators to hand over data of 46 million customers, Germany's Health Minister Jens Spahn and Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht are examining another plan for a "voluntary" system.

It was developed by Germany's Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz (HHI) telecommunications institute in collaboration with the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country's public health agency. Tests were carried out in Berlin on Wednesday.

Germany's federal data protection commissioner, Ulrich Kelber, said collection could only take place with citizen consent, with data stored only for a limited term. Virtually uninterrupted surveillance as in China would be impossible, he asserted.

ipj/sri (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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