Will coronavirus surveillance outlast the pandemic?

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From facial recognition to phone tracking, authorities rolled out a range of surveillance tools to trace infections and enforce quarantines during the coronavirus outbreak.

The deadly respiratory disease has so far infected more than 2,1 million people worldwide and killed about 14 ,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Privacy groups and researchers warn measures to protect and monitor citizens in exceptional circumstances, when most people accept they are needed, could outlast the current crisis.

This is what digital rights experts say about the trade-off between public health and digital surveillance and whether monitoring measures are likely to be rolled back after the immediate risk from COVID-19 passes.

RASHA ABDUL RAHIM, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, AMNESTY TECH

“Privacy and effective responses to the pandemic are not mutually exclusive: technology can and should play an important role as long as it’s part of a broader strategy and compliant with human rights.

“One trend we’re seeing across the world is almost a default setting of increased surveillance without the case actually being made that these new measures are effective, necessary and proportionate.

“There needs to be more transparency about the nature of partnerships governments are forging with companies to come up with these solutions.”

DIEGO NARANJO, HEAD OF POLICY, EUROPEAN DIGITAL RIGHTS

“Given the serious public health crisis all EU member states face, data collection from citizens can be valuable for a greater understanding of the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“Responses need to be fundamentally rights-based with necessity and proportionality in mind. It is essential, after the crisis ends, the exceptional measures end as well.

“This cannot become another ‘war on terror’ with endless exceptional measures to combat potentially endless future pandemics.”

EDIN OMANOVIC, ADVOCACY DIRECTOR, PRIVACY INTERNATIONAL

“Surveillance laws and tech being rolled out are unprecedented in their global scale. Some measures are considered responses to a public health emergency, some less so and some are outright power-grabs.

“As we move towards various stages of dealing with this pandemic, the risk is we’ll see new demands for different types of surveillance technology, for example, biometric tools to track immunity and monitor public spaces.

“It’s very likely some authorities will simply re-purpose tools or rely on normalisation to keep them in place.

“This doesn’t have to be the case: there are privacy friendly alternatives out there and safeguards such as purpose limitation and sunset clauses to prevent excesses happening.”

MARJORIE BUCHSER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, DIGITAL SOCIETY INITIATIVE, CHATHAM HOUSE

“In Europe, the crisis is likely to have a chilling effect on forthcoming technology regulations. Yet, compared to half a decade ago, government entities are more aware of the pitfalls of technology.

“In many countries, some privacy-preserving regulations (such as GDPR) are in place.

“This is not necessarily the case everywhere. In many regions, citizens should be concerned as there is a real risk emergency measures such as deployment of surveillance technology becomes permanent and normalised.”

STEVE KILLELEA, EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN, INSTITUTE FOR ECONOMICS AND PEACE

“For many democracies this is perhaps the first instance of a mass surveillance programme where they directly target citizens.

“Once out there, these deeply invasive technologies will be a powerful tool for governments to re-use.

“Leaders with an authoritarian bent will try and justify the need to maintain this network either to prevent future outbreaks or to monitor current disease levels to prevent a second wave.

“Civil society needs to remain vigilant, otherwise the recent prior COVID-19 trend,of increasing loss of privacy, more intrusive surveillance and control will gain momentum, undermining the effectiveness of our democratic processes.”

SANDRA WACHTER, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, OXFORD INTERNET INSTITUTE, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

“I worry first, we are giving up privacy rights and other human rights too easily without knowing about the positive effect for public health.

“Second, we will become used to the ‘new normal’ and not return to our high standards of privacy once the crisis is over. Only constant risk assessment will show us when the threat has faded to within normal parameters.

“If we don’t do that we run the risk of remaining in a constant state of emergency with limited human rights protection.”