Since the COVID 19 outbreak became a fast-spreading pandemic, governments from across the globe have implemented new policies to help slow the spread of the virus.
In addition to closing borders to non-citizens, many governments
have also mobilized digital surveillance technologies to track and contain visitors and citizens alike.
On Wednesday, the Hong Kong government announced that all new arrivals to the city must undergo two weeks of self-quarantine,
while wearing an electronic wristband that connects to a location tracking app on their phones.
If the app detects changes in the person's location, it will alert the Department of Health and the police. Prior to this new policy,
only people who had recently visited Hubei province in China were required to wear a monitoring wristband during their quarantine period.
While surveillance technologies and measures may give the public a sense of security in
controlling the spread of the virus, we must remain mindful and vigilant of their continued use after the pandemic subsides.
European and North American countries like Italy, Spain, and the US are currently being hit hard by the
coronavirus. Meanwhile, Asian countries have been praised by international media for their swift responses and use of surveillance technologies to control the outbreak.
The Singaporean government, for example, implemented policies
that can effectively and rigorously trace a complex chain of contacts . As of February, anyone entering a government or corporate building in Singapore will have to provide their contact information.
In addition, the government
has been gathering a substantial amount of data detailing not only each known case of infection but also where the person lives, works and the network of contacts they are connected to.
While these measures have thus far seemed to
yield positive results, they have highlighted the technological capacity and power of the government to monitor the movements and lives of every individual.
In China, where Covid-19 was first detected, the government has been
deploying not only drastic lockdown policies but also a variety of surveillance technologies to ensure public compliance with self-quarantine and isolation.
In addition to using drones to monitor people's movements and ensure they
are staying home, police in five Chinese cities have taken to patrolling the streets wearing smart helmets equipped with thermal screening technologies that sound an alarm if a person's temperature is higher than the threshold.
The government has also collaborated with the company Hanwang Technology Limited to finesse their existing facial recognition technology, so that it can work even when the person is wearing a face mask
When connected to a temperature sensor and the Chinese government's existing database as well as state-level intel, this technology allows authorities to immediately identify the name of each person whose body temperature is above
38 degrees Celcius.
According to Hanwang Technology, this refined facial recognition technology can identify up to 30 people within a second.
While the use of surveillance technologies like these has been
effective in lowering the number of confirmed cases in China, it is not without risks.
Beyond the pandemic, both the Chinese government and the company have substantial interests in further developing and deploying this
technology: the government can make use of it to track and suppress political dissidents, and the company has much to gain financially.
This technology can also be co-opted by China's counterterrorism forces to further monitor and
regulate the movement of the Uighur people, who are categorised as terrorists by the Chinese government and are currently being forced into mass detention camps and subjected to forced labour.
Outside of Asia, Middle Eastern
countries like Israel and Iran have also been deploying similar surveillance technologies , citing the need to control the spread of the coronavirus.
The Israeli government now makes use of technologies developed for
counterterrorism to collect cellphone data, so that the government can trace people's contact network, and identify those who need to be quarantined.
The geolocation data gathered via people's phones will then be used to alert the
public where not to go based on the pattern of infection.
Not only is it unprecedented for Israel to deploy counterterrorism data to combat a public health crisis, but the existence of this data trove has also, according to the
New York Times , not been reported prior to this.
On March 6, researcher Nariman Gharib revealed that the Iranian government had been tracking its citizens' phone data through an app disguised as a coronavirus diagnostic tool.
Security expert Nikolaos Chrysaidos confirmed that the app collected sensitive personal information unrelated to the outbreak -- for example, the app recorded the bodily movements of the user the way a fitness tracker would.
Google has since removed the app from Google Play, but this case demonstrates the need for ongoing public vigilance over government use of surveillance technologies in the name of public health.
public health has historically been used as a justification for mainstream institutions and government authorities to stigmatise, monitor, and regulate the lives of marginalised people -- such as immigrants, racial minorities, LGBTQ+ people, and people
living in poverty.
If we do not hold our government accountable for its use of surveillance technologies during the current pandemic and beyond, we will be putting those who are already marginalised at further risks of regulation,
suppression, and persecution.
The government is
working with mobile network O2 to analyse smartphone location data to see whether people are following its social distancing guidelines.
The partnership began following a tech summit at Number 10, where officials discussed coronavirus outbreak
planning with representatives from the UK's largest phone networks. A spokesperson for O2 confirmed that the company was providing aggregated data to the government so it could observe trends in public movements, particularly in London.
claimed that the project will not be able to track individuals but individual data seems so beneficial to contact tracing that surely it will be enabled.
Presumably there will need to be a balance. If the authorities use location data to punish
people for not following rules then people will leave their phones at home and contact tracing capabilities will be lost.
The US free speech campaigners of the EFF debate governments' use of phone location data:
Governments Haven't Shown Location Surveillance Would Help Contain COVID-19
Governments around the world are demanding new dragnet location surveillance powers to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. But before the public
allows their governments to implement such systems, governments must explain to the public how these systems would be effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. There's no questioning the need for far-reaching public health measures to meet this
urgent challenge, but those measures must be scientifically rigorous, and based on the expertise of public health professionals.
Governments have not yet met that standard, nor even shown that extraordinary location surveillance
powers would make a significant contribution to containing COVID-19. Unless they can, there's no justification for their intrusions on privacy and free speech, or the disparate impact these intrusions would have on vulnerable groups. Indeed, governments
have not even been transparent about their plans and rationales.
The Costs of Location Surveillance
EFF has long opposed location surveillance programs that can turn our lives into open books for
scrutiny by police, surveillance-based advertisers, identity thieves, and stalkers. Many sensitive inferences can be drawn from a visit to a health center, a criminal defense lawyer, an immigration clinic, or a protest planning meeting.
Moreover, fear of surveillance chills and deters free speech and association. And all too often , surveillance disparately burdens people of color. What's more, whatever personal data is collected by government can be misused by its
employees, stolen by criminals and foreign governments, and unpredictably redirected by agency leaders to harmful new uses .
Emerging Dragnet Location Surveillance
China reportedly responded to the
COVID-19 crisis by building new infrastructures to track the movements of massive numbers of identifiable people. Israel tapped into a vast trove of cellphone location data to identify people who came into close contact with known virus carriers. That
nation has sent quarantine orders based on this surveillance. About a dozen countries are reportedly testing a spy tool built by NSO Group that uses huge volumes of cellphone location data to match the location of infected people to other people in their
vicinity (NSO's plan is to not share a match with the government absent such a person's consent).
In the United States , the federal government is reportedly seeking, from mobile app companies like Facebook and Google, large
volumes of location data that is de-identified (that is, after removal of information that identifies particular people) and aggregated (that is, after combining data about multiple people). According to industry executives, such data might be used to
predict the next virus hotspot. Facebook has previously made data like this available to track population movements during natural disasters.
But re-identification of de-identified data is a constant infosec threat .
De-identification of location data is especially hard, since location data points serve as identification of their own. Also, re-identification can be achieved by correlating de-identified data with other publicly available data like voter rolls, and
with the oceans of information about identifiable people that are sold by data brokers . While de-identification might in some cases reduce privacy risks , this depends on many factors that have not yet been publicly addressed, such as careful selection
of what data to aggregate, and the minimum thresholds for aggregation. In the words of Prof. Matt Blaze, a specialist in computer science and privacy:
One of the things we have learned over time is that something that
seems anonymous, more often than not, is not anonymous , even if it's designed with the best intentions.
Disturbingly, most of the public information about government's emerging location surveillance programs comes
from anonymous sources , and not official explanations. Transparency is a cornerstone of democratic governance, especially now , in the midst of a public health crisis. If the government is considering such new surveillance programs, it must publicly
explain exactly what it is planning, why this would help, and what rules would apply. History shows that when government builds new surveillance programs in secret , these programs quickly lead to unjustified privacy abuses. That's one reason EFF has
long demanded transparent democratic control over whether government agencies may deploy new surveillance technology.
Governments Must Show Their Work
Because new government dragnet location
surveillance powers are such a menace to our digital rights, governments should not be granted these powers unless they can show the public how these powers would actually help, in a significant manner, to contain COVID-19. Even if governments could show
such efficacy, we would still need to balance the benefit of the government's use of these powers against the substantial cost to our privacy, speech, and equality of opportunity. And even if this balancing justified government's use of these powers, we
would still need safeguards, limits, auditing, and accountability measures. In short, new surveillance powers must always be necessary and proportionate .
But today, we can't balance those interests or enumerate necessary
safeguards, because governments have not shown how the proposed new dragnet location surveillance powers could help contain COVID-19. The following are some of the points we have not seen the government publicly address.
the location records sought sufficiently granular to show whether two people were within transmittal distance of each other? In many cases, we question whether such data will actually be useful to healthcare professionals.
may seem paradoxical. After all, location data is sufficiently precise for law enforcement to place suspects at the scene of a crime, and for juries to convict largely on the basis of that evidence. But when it comes to tracking the spread of a disease
that requires close personal contact, data generated by current technology generally can't reliably tell us whether two people were closer than the CDC-recommended radius of six feet for social distancing.
For example, cell site
location information (CSLI)--the records generated by mobile carriers based on which cell towers a phone connects to and when--is often only able to place a phone within a zone of half a mile to two miles in urban areas. The area is even wider in areas
with less dense tower placement. GPS sensors built directly into phones can do much better, but even GPS is only accurate to a 16-foot radius . These and other technologies like Bluetooth can be combined for better accuracy, but there's no guarantee that
a given phone can be located with six-foot precision at a given time.
2. Do the cellphone location records identify a sufficiently large and representative portion of the overall population? Even today, not everyone has a
cellphone, and some people do not regularly carry their phones or connect them to a cellular network. The population that carries a networked phone at all times is not representative of the overall population; for example, people without phones skew
towards lower-income people and older people.
3. Has the virus already spread so broadly that contact tracing is no longer a significant way to reduce transmission? If community transmission is commonplace, contact tracing may
become impractical or divert resources from more effective containment methods.
There might be scenarios other than precise, person-to-person contact tracing where location data could be useful. We've heard it suggested, for
example, that this data could be used to track future flare-ups of the virus by observing general patterns of people's movements in a given area. But even when transmission is less common, widespread testing may be more effective at containment, as may
be happening in South Korea .
4. Will health-based surveillance deter people from seeking health care? Already, there are reports that people subject to COVID-based location tracking are altering their movements to avoid
embarrassing revelations. If a positive test result will lead to enhanced location surveillance, some people may avoid testing.
As our society struggles with COVID-19, far narrower big
data surveillance proposals may emerge. Perhaps public health professionals will show that such proposals are necessary and proportionate. If so, EFF would seek safeguards, including mandatory expiration when the health crisis ends, independent
supervision, strict anti-discrimination rules, auditing for efficacy and misuse, and due process for affected people.
But for now, government has not shown that new dragnet location surveillance powers would significantly help to
contain COVID-19. It is the government's job to show the public why this would work.
Update: In fight against coronavirus, European governments embrace surveillance
The Department of Homeland Security has a scary vision for expanding face recognition surveillance into our everyday lives, threatening a dystopian future in which the technology is used throughout our public spaces to scrutinize our identity, check us
against watchlists, record our movements, and more. Work on building the infrastructure for this pervasive monitoring has already started, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection currently operating a face recognition system at the gates of departing
The Metropolitan Police has announced it will use live facial recognition cameras operationally for the first time on London streets.
Following earlier pilots in London and deployments by South Wales police, the cameras are due to be put into action
within a month. Cameras will be clearly signposted, covering a small, targeted area, and police officers will hand out leaflets about the facial recognition scanning, the Met said.
Trials of the cameras have already taken place on 10 occasions in
locations such as Stratford's Westfield shopping centre and the West End of London. The Met said in these trials, 70% of wanted suspects in the system who walked past the cameras were identified, while only one in 1,000 people generated a false alert.
But an independent review of six of these deployments found that only eight out of 42 matches were verifiably correct.
Over the past four years, as the Met has trialled facial recognition, opposition to its use has intensified, led in the UK by
campaign groups Liberty and Big Brother Watch.
The force also believes a recent High Court judgment, which said South Wales Police did not breach the rights of a man whose face had been scanned by a camera, gives it some legal cover. The case is
heading for the Court of Appeal. But the Met is pressing on, convinced that the public at large will support its efforts to use facial recognition to track down serious offenders.
Last year, the Met admitted it supplied images for a database
carrying out facial recognition scans on a privately owned estate in King's Cross, after initially denying involvement.
It seems to the normal response from
the Information Commissioner's Office to turn a blind eye to the actual serious exploitation of people's personal data whilst focusing heavily on generating excessive quantities of red tape rules requiring small players to be ultra protective of personal
to point of strangling their businesses and livelihoods. And, just like for unconsented website tracking and profiling by the only advertising industry, the ICO will monitor and observe and comment again later in the year:
In October 2019 we concluded our investigation into how police use live facial recognition technology (LFR) in public places. Our investigation found there was public support for police use of LFR but also that there needed to be improvements in how
police authorised and deployed the technology if it was to retain public confidence and address privacy concerns. We set out our views in a formal Opinion for police forces.
The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) has incorporated
the advice from our Opinion into its planning and preparation for future LFR use. Our Opinion acknowledges that an appropriately governed, targeted and intelligence- led deployment of LFR may meet the threshold of strict necessity for law enforcement
purposes. We have received assurances from the MPS that it is considering the impact of this technology and is taking steps to reduce intrusion and comply with the requirements of data protection legislation. We expect to receive further information from
the MPS regarding this matter in forthcoming days. The MPS has committed to us that it will review each deployment, and the ICO will continue to observe and monitor the arrangements for, and effectiveness of, its use.
This is an
important new technology with potentially significant privacy implications for UK citizens. We reiterate our call for Government to introduce a statutory and binding code of practice for LFR as a matter of priority. The code will ensure consistency in
how police forces use this technology and to improve clarity and foreseeability in its use for the public and police officers alike. We believe it's important for government to work with regulators, law enforcement, technology providers and communities
to support the code.
Facial recognition remains a high priority for the ICO and the public. We have several ongoing investigations. We will be publishing more about its use by the private sector later this year.
To: Priti Patel, Home Secretary and Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police
Urgently stop the Metropolitan Police using live facial recognition surveillance.
Why is this important?
The Metropolitan Police has announced it will use live facial recognition across London, despite an independent review finding its previous trials likely unlawful and over 80% inaccurate. The Met is the largest police force in the
democratic world to roll out this dangerously authoritarian surveillance. This represents an enormous expansion of the surveillance state and a serious threat to civil liberties in the UK - and it sets a dangerous precedent worldwide. We urge the Home
Secretary and Met Commissioner to stop it now.