The coronavirus outbreak has enabled authorities from China to Russia to increase surveillance and clamp down on free speech, with the risk that these measures will persist even after the situation eases, digital rights experts said.
COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus which emerged from China late last year, has killed more than 3,000 people worldwide and made about 91,000 unwell.
In response, many countries have tightened border controls and imposed travel bans. Some have stepped up surveillance using artificial intelligence (AI) and big data, alarming human rights activists and data privacy experts.
“Governments are legitimizing tools of oppression as tools of public health,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at Access Now, a digital rights non-profit.
“The danger is that these measures stay in place and that data continues to be collected and used. We have seen this happen in the past after major events in China and after 9/11 in the United States,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
China tightened controls during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, while the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks prompted the passage of the Patriot Act that human rights activists say gave authorities more power to step up surveillance for security purposes.
While the use of facial recognition in airports for a specific purpose and time may be justified to contain the coronavirus outbreak, keeping travel records, health records and other data indefinitely is “not legitimate,” Chima said.
Moscow is using facial recognition technology to ensure people ordered to remain at home or in their hotels do so. Russian authorities last month said they would deport 88 foreign nationals for allegedly violating quarantine measures.
Singapore, where an international conference in January led to coronavirus spreading around the world, from Spain to South Korea, is using a process called contact tracing to control infections.
In a Facebook post, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this entailed creating a detailed log of a patient’s movements and interactions in the 14 days before admission to hospital, and tracing everyone exposed to the patient.
“Fortunately, COVID-19 patients have generally been cooperative in sharing information. This enables healthcare workers, public officers, and the Singapore Police Force to map out the history and contacts quickly,” Lee said.
Authorities used immigration data to find a permanent resident who had breached quarantine requirements while in Singapore. His status was revoked and he was barred from re-entering Singapore, immigration authorities said last month.
As the coronavirus outbreak is “very serious”, it is vital that governments respond by collecting and analyzing citizens’ data, said Louisa Jorm, director of the Center for Big Data Research in Health in Australia.
“Some temporary invasion of privacy is inevitable if government authorities are to mount an effective public health response,” said Jorm, based at the University of New South Wales, which is not directly involved in the pandemic response.
Some of the greatest fears about high tech social control are in China where people are required to use software on their smartphones that determines whether they should be quarantined or can be allowed into subways and public spaces.
A New York Times analysis found that the system appeared to share people’s locations with the police, in a country which already has the world’s most sophisticated system of electronic surveillance.
AI and security camera companies in China have been touting systems which they say can recognize faces even if people are wearing masks or hats and report them to authorities, while maps can show locations of buildings where infected patients live.
Governments have extraordinary powers during emergencies but “typically with due process checks on the necessity, validity, and proportionality of those powers,” said Sean McDonald of the Center for International Governance Innovation.
U.S. authorities used Uber records to track a suspected coronavirus patient to Mexico, while South Korea used seized mobile phone records to quarantine thousands during an outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015, he said.
“The real risk, in situations like this, is that institutions will develop large surveillance mechanisms that they repurpose for more political or commercial means,” said McDonald, a senior fellow at the Canadian think-tank.
At the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, it has been mandatory since February for staff to submit information including their location and any contact with people from heavily affected areas, said one employee, Liaoyuan Zeng.
The professor also said police had come to his apartment to collect information on the family, including travel history.
“To me, this is a very reasonable data collection activity for safety reasons,” he said.
“Uploading my body temperature, family information, travel history … is no problem at all, especially when data collection and surveillance is reasonable under this special circumstance,” he said in emailed comments.
Countries need strong data protection laws and independent authorities who can ensure that data are not kept indefinitely or used for political purposes, and few Asian countries have such checks and balances, said Chima.
Asian countries are also using the outbreak to impose stricter information controls, and arresting and punishing people for allegedly spreading false information or criticizing authorities for mishandling the outbreak.
“There’s a danger that when you increase surveillance and information controls, it can undermine the public health system,” said Chima, citing the example of the Chinese doctor who first raised the alarm over the virus, and was reprimanded.
“Surveillance itself can never be a solution,” he said.
Reporting by Rina Chandran for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.