In an attempt to stem the tide of the coronavirus pandemic, at least 30 governments around the world have instituted temporary or indefinite efforts to single out infected individuals or maintain quarantines. Many of these efforts, in turn, undermine personal privacy.
It’s a complex trade-off: Governments need information to create containment strategies and know where to focus resources. At the same time, governments have a way of holding onto tools that undermine citizens’ privacy long after the moment of crisis has passed. Take, for example, the United States’ 2001 Patriot Act, which was passed in response to the 9/11 attacks. The Patriot Act gave the government broad surveillance powers with little oversight, including demanding customer data from telecoms without court approval. Twenty years later, it’s still around.
To document global surveillance measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic, OneZero compiled press reports from more than 30 countries where potential privacy issues are occurring.
The most common form of surveillance implemented to battle the pandemic is the use of smartphone location data, which can track population-level movement down to enforcing individual quarantines. Some governments are making apps that offer coronavirus health information, while also sharing location information with authorities for a period of time. For instance, in early March, the Iranian government released an app that it pitched as a self-diagnostic tool. While the tool’s efficacy was likely low, given reports of asymptomatic carriers of the virus, the app saved location data of millions of Iranians, according to a Vice report.
One of the most alarming measures being implemented is in Argentina, where those who are caught breaking quarantine are being forced to download an app that tracks their location. In Hong Kong, those arriving in the airport are given electronic tracking bracelets that must be synced to their home location through their smartphone’s GPS signal.