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Health or Privacy: mass surveillance in a Covid-19 climate


As part of efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus, governments around the world have taken drastic surveillance measures. From the UK's Track and Trace app (link to our blog on track and trace) to China's drones and public sensors, mass surveillance has been deployed worldwide, to prevent and diminish the spread of Covid-19.

We're all for the safety of the people. Who isn't? The concern however, is that this same technology that identifies fevers and coughs, could equally interpret deeper human feelings - anger, joy, love, boredom. Corporations and governments could, in essence, use our biometric data to predict and manipulate our emotions and sell us anything they want.

Are we giving up our privacy too readily or is it a worthy price to pay when faced with a deadly virus?

What is under-the-skin surveillance and what threat does its global normalisation pose to the public?

Surveillance tools such as fever detection goggles, drones that monitor curfews and lockdown, and apps that track the spread of symptoms are being used in countries including Cambodia, China, Pakistan and Thailand.

Professor Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, explains the difference between under-the-skin and over-the-skin surveillance:

‘Over-the-skin-surveillance is monitoring what you do in the outside world, where you go, whom you meet, what you watch on TV or which websites you visit online. It doesn't go into your body. Under-the-skin-surveillance is monitoring what's happening inside your body. It starts with things like your temperature, but then it can go to your blood pressure, to your heart rate, to your brain activity.’

This software uses biometric readings to understand behavioural patterns, enabling quicker reaction times to potential health threats via the monitoring of gathering crowds. Drones will not be used in individual private yards, nor does the software employ facial recognition technology, according to a police statement.

Though such measures were introduced on a temporary basis, to control the spread of infections, the normalisation of global mass surveillance has, slowly but surely, proven to be more and more of a threat to civil rights. From GPS contact tracing apps to facial recognition CCTV, digital tracking has now been used in 35 countries, throughout the outbreak of Covid-19. 

This precedent for invasive security measures was initially set by the Israeli government, the first ones to implement Covid-19 phone tracking measures. It is said that Israeli internal security agencies were monitoring phones of people with coronavirus, so as to keep track of the spread of infections. 

Not long after, Qatar began to impose its virus tracing app, which if not downloaded, could risk you up to three years in prison or a potential £43,000 fine. 

Many other countries have been trying their best to implement mass surveillance technology whilst ensuring a basis of privacy. For instance, France has been testing various CCTV AI tools, which scan through passengers, on public transport, and identify how many individuals aren’t wearing face masks. While this software has raised some brows, it does in fact comply with GDPR laws. This is mainly because the technology itself does not keep hold of visual data (images) and is not being used as a way to incriminate individuals. Rather, it is relied on as a precautionary measure. By scanning the ratio of individuals wearing masks to those that aren’t, the government is able to anticipate future virus outbreaks. 

Also in line is South Korea, having recently put forth electronic wristbands, as a way to keep track of individuals breaking quarantine. Korean authorities were initially flirting with the idea of making these wristbands mandatory for anyone who was self-isolating. However, this was quickly condemned as a major obstacle to constitutional rights. It seemed, then, that the government had to settle for these wristbands to be worn consensually and only by people who had already broken quarantine. 

Drones and Biometric Mass Surveillance in China 

In Beijing, contactless temperature detection software - capable of recognising faces to track individuals - was deployed at ‘underground stations, schools and community centres, in Shanghai and Shenzhen’. In Chengdu city, the police had even been issued with smart helmets that would measure the temperature of anyone within a 5m radius, alerting officers of anyone with a fever.

'Shout drones' - speaker-equipped to spread verbal warnings to shame non-compliant individuals - have also been used. In fact, an elderly woman was ordered to 'go home and rest' by a drone, after having accidentally got  caught in a crowd of individuals.

Credit where credit is due: what are the benefits of under-the-skin surveillance and how has it helped combat Covid-19?

It’s not all bad. 

According to Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, AI-powered diagnosis systems ‘can identify coronavirus infections with 96% accuracy’. Another plus is that, with drones and sensors, human beings are not put at risk of the virus when having to break up crowds of non-distanced people. 

"In the battle against Covid-19, emerging technologies have stood out by making immense contributions in an unexpected, creative and amazingly responsive way," said Lu Chuanying, a senior official at Shanghai-based Global Cyberspace Governance. 

What are the limitations of a global surveillance program?

It is important to note that questions have been raised as to how accurate some of this new technology is and even how useful it can be in stopping the spread of a virus. Remote fever detection via drones, for example,  may not be that useful since many who have the virus are asymptomatic.

Would authorities be alerted if someone sneezes in a school or ‘has been running and is standing in a park with an elevated body temperature?’ Shouldn't there be an established standard of technological effectiveness, if we are going to give up our privacy so?

What will happen to mass surveillance after Covid-19 and how worried should we be?

Professor Yuval Noah Harari is open about his concerns that with under-the-skin surveillance you could ‘create a totalitarian regime that never existed before...you can actually monitor my body temperature or my blood pressure and my heart rate as I read the article or as I watch the program online or on television. Then you can know what I feel every moment.’ 

This type of data collection makes the Cambridge Analytica scandal look like child's-play.

He is one amongst many who are seriously concerned about the negative possibilities of such technology. In Paris, a court recently suspended the use of COVID-19 drone surveillance until privacy concerns are addressed. 

However, in other countries, such debates have favoured the technology’s abilities over privacy concerns. In Cambodia, people speaking out against the government’s policies are to be detained.

As senior human rights analyst at Verisk Maplecroft says; “Countries like China and Cambodia don’t need a reason to up their surveillance but Covid has accelerated the pace at which these types of technology can be abused”.

David McGuire, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, adds: “we are naturally sceptical of towns announcing these kinds of partnerships without information about who is operating the drones, what data they will collect, or how or if that data will be stored, shared, or sold”. It has been reported that Chinese-made drones may share data with the Chinese government

Historically, countries have always used a public crisis to excuse the invasion of people’s privacy and continued to use such measures to monitor its citizens, even after the crisis had passed. For instance, in  Israel, a state of emergency was declared in its 1948 War of Independence, ‘which justified a range of temporary measures from press censorship and land confiscation’ and although the War has long been won, Israel has never declared the emergency over. The fear is that there will always be a worry of the next wave of the virus, or another possible virus making its way to the state, to justify the continued use of mass surveillance. 

Amnesty International says, “wherever possible we need to ensure that whatever legislation is enacted is appropriate and proportionate. We need to ask that at the end of the pandemic, for example, will it still make sense to have drones flying about? Human rights need to be part of the agenda.”

Final thoughts

Some argue that the use of surveillance tools such as drones is a price worth paying if it helps to save lives and sustain the economy. But others fear that the potential for misuse of such technology and the infringement on human rights is not worth the health benefits, especially if mass surveillance often risks ‘damaging public trust in the police, in public bodies and in the lockdown measures’. 

Others argue that the  most successful efforts to contain COVID19 have been in countries such as South Korea and Singapore, where governments have relied on honest reporting, extensive testing, and ‘the willing cooperation of a well-informed public’. 

Perhaps we don’t have to choose between health and privacy, after all. 

As Professor Yuval Noah Harari argues, ‘when people are told the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can do the right thing’, and it is widely agreed that ‘a self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population’. 

The use of drone and under-the-skin surveillance must clearly be carefully balanced against protecting our human rights. The realistic costs and benefits must be assessed thoroughly before such surveillance tactics are deployed on a global scale. Although, as we have seen, crises can be highly time-sensitive and such thorough research is not always possible.