The mobile location tracking programs governments are using in the fight against COVID-19 pose serious risks to human rights, one of the world’s leading rights groups has warned.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement that COVID-19 related programs, whose utility in controlling the pandemic has yet to be proven, may introduce unnecessary and disproportionate surveillance measures in public health disguise.
HRW has looked at how this technology has been used by China, Israel, South Korea, the United States, and other governments.
“Some restrictions on people’s rights may be justifiable during a public health emergency, but people are being asked to sacrifice their privacy and turn over personal data for use by untested technologies,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher at HRW.
“Containing the pandemic and reopening society are essential goals, but we can do this without pervasive surveillance,” Brown said.
While protecting human life and public health is a paramount concern of policymakers everywhere, HRW warned that governments and the private sector should not promote or use unproven and untested technology.
The rights group said that the long history of emergency measures shows that when surveillance is introduced, it usually goes too far, fails to meet its objectives, and once approved, often outlasts its justification. Mobile tracking programs intended to be temporary measures until the pandemic is under control and a vaccine is available may become permanent features of an expanded surveillance regime.
Excessively compromising privacy is a gateway to undermining other rights, such as freedom of movement, expression, and association, HRW said.
Mobile phone network data analysis creates granular, real-time targeting opportunities, which can be used by governments to enforce draconian quarantine measures. This is particularly problematic in the absence of transparent and meaningful limits on data collection, retention, and use. In the hands of governments that already have intrusive surveillance practices, such as China and Russia, this can magnify discrimination and repression, HRW said.