We cataloged how 28 countries are ramping up surveillance to combat the coronavirus
In an attempt to stem the tide of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 25 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 25 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 Vicereport.
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.
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So far, OneZero has found reports of potentially privacy infringing technology being deployed by 28 countries, listed below. We’ll be updating this list on a weekly basis.
The Ministry of Health has built a mandatory app for those entering the country to keep installed for 14 days, which requires users to give access to location data.
It’s not clear if the government is actively tracking people with that location data, but the province of Santa Fe is allegedly forcing those who have violated quarantine to download an app that specifically tracks their whereabouts.
Those ordered into quarantine could have government surveillance devices installed in their homes or be forced to wear electronic surveillance devices, according to a new law in the state of Western Australia.
However, the Australian government has opted not to use cellphone-based location tracking.
An Austrian telecom gave two days’ worth of anonymized location data to the government in order to analyze movement in the country. The data is reportedly unable to be analyzed in groups of fewer than 20 people.
Three telecoms in Belgium are giving data to a company called Dalberg Data Insights, which is analyzing the information to detect widespread trends of movement in the country.
Local governments across Brazil are tracking location data from citizens’ smartphones. The city of Recife alone is tracking 700,000 people’s locations through their personal devices, and it’s one of Brazil’s smaller metropolitan areas.
Most of this tracking is being done by Brazilian startups working in conjunction with governments.
“We have visibility of certain behaviors that couldn’t be captured by other technologies. For example, if an individual leaves their house, we can detect that in a matter of seconds,” the CEO of one Brazilian firm told Brazilian news site Mobile Time.
China is using practically every surveillance system in its toolbox: Authorities are tapping publicly located cameras to run facial recognition searches, citizens are being location-tracked through their phones, and drones are being put to use in order to give directions from the government, according to CNBC.
The Chinese government is also tracking individuals in more than 200 cities through a smartphone app that grades their health and assigns them a classification of green, yellow, or red, according to the New York Times. The app sends that data to the police and works as a hall pass for entry into certain public places. Travel to designated hot spots, contact with an infected person, or reported symptoms in the app can result in red and yellow designations, which restrict a person’s movement. How to remove that designation, as well as exactly how those decisions are made, is unclear.
China is also putting pressure on private companies in the country to hand over data to further contain the pandemic.
Cameras typically used to catch speeding motorists in Dubai will now analyze drivers’ license plates and determine whether they are deemed essential workers, according to Gulf News.
The system allegedly tracks drivers throughout their entire trip and will know whether or not the route they take is to their job.
Ecuador is tracking the location of cellphones nationwide to curb the spread of the virus and enforce the country’s 9 p.m. curfew, according to EcuadorTV.
German telecom Telekom is providing location data from its customers to the Robert Koch Institute, the organization coordinating the country’s national action against the coronavirus. Germany is also expected to launch a Bluetooth-based app like those used in Singapore and Indonesia to track personal movement and contact.
The country’s public health authority also launched a smartwatch app that collects health data in an attempt to determine whether people are exhibiting signs of the coronavirus.
Those quarantined in Hong Kong must wear electronic wristbands that track their locations. Wristbands are handed out at the airport and must be paired with the individual’s smartphone.
Once a person arrives home, they are given one minute to walk around their apartment to calibrate the wristband and the accompanying app to the space where they are confined.
Indian authorities have expanded tracking citizens through digital and analog means. Location data and CCTV footage are being used to track citizens in the southern Indian state of Kerala, according to Reuters. Western states are also stamping the hands of those arriving in airports with irremovable ink, with the stamp detailing the date until which the person must quarantine.
In addition to personal tracking, Indian authorities are also taking passenger information from airlines and railroad companies.
Now that touch-based authentication like fingerprint scanners are considered risky since they require people to touch a common surface, facial recognition is getting a boost in adoption across India. Secureye, an Indian telecom, is also replacing 650 fingerprint-based security checkpoints in offices and hotels with facial recognition.
The Indonesian government has developed an app that tracks interactions with nearby Bluetooth devices, like other smartphones, in an attempt to track social distancing and personal interactions. It’s opt-in and offers benefits like notifying people who might have been exposed to get tested for the virus.
A smartphone app developed by the Iranian government scooped up millions of users’ location data alongside a short questionnaire that claimed to detect the likelihood of infection, according to Vice.
A notice about the app was sent to tens of millions of Iranians, with the directive to take the questionnaire before going in for a coronavirus test. According to an Iranian official, at least 3.5 million people shared their location.
The Israeli government is using data from telecom providers to track the locations of millions of citizens in an attempt to find people diagnosed with the coronavirus and alert those with whom the infected person might have interacted. Those breaking quarantine are threatened with up to six months of imprisonment.
English telecom Vodafone is providing the Italian government with heatmaps of its mobile phone users’ locations, with the first being from Lombardy, Italy. Officials have determined that 40% of people are moving around too much, according to the New York Times.
The Kenyan government is instituting 24/7 aerial surveillance of the country’s border to detect illegal crossings of goods or people.
The Norwegian Institute of Public Health and Norwegian tech company Simula will build a voluntary app that tracks GPS and Bluetooth data, to be stored for 30 days.
Through location surveillance and mass texts, the government of Pakistan is tracking confirmed cases of the coronavirus and sending alerts to people found to have potentially come in contact with those suffering the disease in the past 14 days.
An app called Home Quarantine requires Polish citizens who are quarantined to intermittently check in by sending a picture of themselves at home within 20 minutes or face a fine.
The app uses facial recognition to determine it’s actually the person being quarantined, and the phone’s location data is used to make sure they’re really at home.
Local governments have been called upon to create their own surveillance systems as well. In the Nizhny Novgorod region, citizens download an app that generates a unique, timed QR code that allows them to go out for three hours to get groceries, one hour to walk a dog, or 30 minutes to take out the trash, according to the Washington Post.
The Singapore government released an app called TraceTogether, which pings nearby smartphones through Bluetooth to determine which people have come within 6.5 feet of each other for more than 30 minutes, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The data is stored for 21 days, according to the developers, and does not record the users’ location.
Confirmed cases of the coronavirus are being tracked in South Korea by a fusion of credit card purchases, smartphone location tracking, and CCTV footage, presumably analyzed by facial recognition algorithms, according to Reuters.
This allows the Korean government to reconstruct the past actions of those diagnosed with the virus with incredible granularity, like using the person’s location data to check nearby CCTV footage and see if they were wearing a mask, Reuters reports.
In an attempt to enforce social distancing, telecom company Swisscom will alert the federal government when more than 20 phones are located in a 100-square-meter area.
Although the government rejects the accusation that it’s adopting surveillance technology, Taiwan is tracking its citizens’ movement by triangulating the location of their cellphone between nearby cell towers.
Those arriving in Thailand from high-risk areas will be given a SIM card that lets the government track their movement for 14 days.
The U.K. is allegedly talking with telecom companies to track its citizens’ location data. In the meantime, the National Health Service has partnered with Palantir to track the spread of the virus and its impact on the health system.
To help track the movement of citizens, the mobile advertising industry is currently supplying data to local, state, and federal government organizations about the location of individuals, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. The data is granular enough to tell whether people are complying with stay-at-home directions or if parks are still in use. Foursquare, which has one of the most comprehensive repositories of personal location data, is in talks with numerous government organizations, according to the WSJ. Most data being used comes from apps that have permission to log a user’s location, which is then compiled and resold.
The goal of these efforts is to create a portal that could track citizen movement in up to 500 U.S. cities. Google is also contributing a trove of movement data, which it collects for services like Google Maps’ traffic function.
There are also troubling state and local policies. In West Virginia, those who test positive for the virus but refuse to quarantine are being outfitted with GPS ankle monitors, according to the Associated Press.
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