Privacy “plummets” with COVID-19 crisis

Tracking in the cause of COVID-19 could be a new low watermark on privacy protection, write Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun. The New York Times reports as follows:

In South Korea, government agencies are harnessing surveillance-camera footage, smartphone location data and credit card purchase records to help trace the recent movements of coronavirus patients and establish virus transmission chains.

In Lombardy, Italy, the authorities are analyzing location data transmitted by citizens’ mobile phones to determine how many people are obeying a government lockdown order and the typical distances they move every day. About 40 percent are moving around “too much,” an official recently said.

In Israel, the country’s internal security agency is poised to start using a cache of mobile phone location data — originally intended for counterterrorism operations — to try to pinpoint citizens who may have been exposed to the virus.

As countries around the world race to contain the pandemic, many are deploying digital surveillance tools as a means to exert social control, even turning security agency technologies on their own civilians. Health and law enforcement authorities are understandably eager to employ every tool at their disposal to try to hinder the virus — even as the surveillance efforts threaten to alter the precarious balance between public safety and personal privacy on a global scale.

Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later. It is a lesson Americans learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, civil liberties experts say.

Nearly two decades later, law enforcement agencies have access to higher-powered surveillance systems, like fine-grained location tracking and facial recognition — technologies that may be repurposed to further political agendas like anti-immigration policies. Civil liberties experts warn that the public has little recourse to challenge these digital exercises of state power.

(Privacy press clipping sourced via The New York Times)
Jurisdiction: United States

Key takeaways:


  • The article points to an upsurge in government mechanisms to track citizens, their health data and their precise movements. In China, for example, an app decides whether individuals are coded “red”, “yellow” or “green” – and depending on their color code, they are allowed to visit certain public places, such as subways or shopping malls.

  • There is a legitimate fear that, once the COVID-19 outbreak subsides, new-found government mechanisms for monitoring individuals will remain in place and may be used for other purposes. Under data privacy laws, many of these mechanisms would be subject to strict scrutiny as extremely invasive.

  • The article suggests that governments must apply a balancing test to the use of technology for tracking, even in the pressing circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis. There is the additional suggestion that governments may not be doing a good job of finding the right balance. This may have consequences down the track – not only for individuals, but also for the development of privacy law.

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